Skeletons: Beethoven’s Skull.

Beethoven's Skull , Copyright Liz Vitale 2015

Infamous composer Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, at age 56. At Beethoven’s own request, an autopsy was performed on March 27,1827 by Dr. Johann Wagner. The autopsy revealed a severely cirrhotic and shrunken liver,and various other afflictions; there were so many that there is much dispute about the cause of Beethoven’s death; alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis,sarcoidosis and Whipple’s disease have all been cited as possible culprits. Heavy metal contamination is  also thought to be a contributing factor in Beethoven’s death as these were commonly used in the medicine of the time. It has also been theorized that he consumed large amounts of lead from illegally fortified wine(lead was often used to sweeten cheap wine in those times, although it was outlawed to do so).

Beethoven’s skull was described as “possessing unusual thickness”. Wagner sawed off the top of Beethoven’s skull and removed it like a cap. Wagner’s work was crude and the skull shattered. The temporal bones were removed for study, in the hope they would reveal something about Beethoven’s deafness—these pieces were never seen again. The remaining skull fragments were reconfigured with gauze, his face “reapplied”, and buried with his body at Währing Cemetery.

In 1863, the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna arranged for the bodies of Beethoven and composer Franz Schubert to be dug up and reburied in more elaborate vaults.The Society wanted to hopefully study the shape of Beethoven’s  skull, especially his ear bones, to learn more of his mental faculties and perhaps locate the cause of his deafness.Gerhard von Breuning, a physician who had personally known Beethoven, was to lead the exhumation and study. Unexpectedly, the study was canceled and the skeleton was reburied in the new vault. Secretly, however,von Breuning kept Beethoven’s skull, although some accounts say he simply kept bone fragments, but further research indicates the nearly complete skull was taken.

In 2005, the remains surfaced; California businessman Paul Kaufmann’s great-great uncle was the physician closely involved in the 1863 exhumation of Beethoven–von Breuning. A a lock of hair known to be Beethoven’s has been tested against the bones and DNA has been matched.

Kaufmann loaned the skull, which is in fragments, to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University, so that tests might be conducted to learn about Beethoven’s medical condition and cause of death.

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.


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