Damned Heretics

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

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Beethoven May Not Have Died from Lead Poisoning

Tests at Mt Sinai counter current theory

Civility breaks out among surprised Beethoven experts

Would that HIV?AIDS, cancer and other fields of scientific inquiry could learn that lesson

Beethoven was a happy and engaging personality in his early years, but by his fifties he was deaf and plagued with mysterious ailments centered on his stomach and nerves.  Now the seemingly credible hypothesis that he suffered badly from lead poisoning seems to have been debunked with new evidence from Mt Sinai, which has been peaceably taken into account by the scholars in the field.   Those familiar with the appalling behavior of scientists in certain other fields and their vicious defense of current belief against any review are wondering whether this civility could be transferred.James Barron in the New York Times today (May 29 Saturday) in Beethoven May Not Have Died of Lead Poisoning, After All reveals that Andrew C. Todd, a lead poisoning expert at Mt Sinai hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has tested two skull fragments from Beethoven’s grave and found that the larger piece had only 13 micrograms of lead per gram, about average for a man of 56.

So although the smaller piece had more lead (48 micrograms) Todd appears to have toppled the long standing paradigm that his death in 1827 was due to lead poisoning, or at least called it into question.

Beethoven’s miserable ill health at the close of his life and the considerable pain he recorded in his letters (added to by the doctors who poured hot oil into his ears and drained fluid from his abdomen) were put down to lead poisoning after the lead content of his hair (click this link for technical discussion) and skull was found to be well above normal in tests thirteen and five years ago, at up to one hundred times the levels of modern urban man.

Scientists began speculating about what really killed Ludwig van Beethoven almost as soon as he was buried in 1827. He had complained of a “wretched existence,” with a long list of symptoms: abdominal pain, digestive trouble, colic, chronic bronchitis, foul body odors and extremely bad breath. And of course there was the hearing problem.

Beethoven began young and graceful, but in his fifties descended into a physical Purgatory and he is said to have asked on his deathbed that his brothers find out why Thirteen years ago scientists, including one who had investigated whether Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning and whether the paint on the Shroud of Turin dated to the time of Jesus, tested strands of Beethoven’s hair and ruled out syphilis as the cause of death. Unexpectedly, they found signs of acute exposure to lead.,

Five years ago tests on different strands of Beethoven’s hair and a tiny piece of his skull again pointed to lead. That, Beethoven scholars said, could have explained his infamous temper and his occasional memory slips. Some figured he had drunk too much cheap wine that was sweetened — in the custom of the 19th century — with lead to hide the bitterness.

But last week a lead-poisoning expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York tested the same piece of Beethoven’s skull that had been examined in 2005, along with another, larger, fragment. The researcher, Dr. Andrew C. Todd, said that over all he had found no more lead than in the average person’s skull.

The hair was obtained from Ira F. Brilliant, a real estate magnate who bought it for $7300 in 1994 at Sotheby’s in London, and the two skull fragments from Dr Meredith were among those originally taken home by a friend of Beethoven’s when his body was exhumed from a Vienna cemetery in 1863, and kept in his bedroom.

From the Argonne National Laboratories:   A X ray fluorescence chart of lead content in Beethoven's bones samples shows as much as a 100X as much as normal today.

As Russell Martin’s book Beethoven’s Hair : An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved suggested in 2000, lead seemed a likely culprit for the ill health that wracked the supremely gifted composer in his tortured last years, which were so very different from his youth as a charming and sociable man.

Meek concession by ruling dogmatists

After all, there were plenty of other reasons to suppose that the composer suffered from lead poisoning, since the plum wine he drank to excess (a treat suggested by his doctors) was sweetened in the 18th Century with lead, and the pencils Beethoven uindoubtedly chewed on contained lead, which also filled the china and the plumbing of the time. His symptoms of irritability, lassitude, headaches and muscular weakness fitted the hypothesis.

So it is quite surprising and even heart warming to find (judging from the article) that the scientists and scholars who had adopted this attractive theory are being surprisingly gracious in conceding its debunking from this one test of one fragment. Todd’s methods, like those conducted earlier by Dr William J. Walsh of Illinois, whose tests at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, involved “multiple measurements with X-ray fluorescence”.

Beethoven's hair, bought for $7300, contained a great deal of lead.  But his skull did not, it seems.Walsh now notes that Todd has only tested skull fragments and not the hair samples, but “agrees with the notion that Beethoven’s exposure to lead was a short term problem that came toward the end of his life.”

Whatever happened to the famous tendency of scientists like all academics to cling like barnacles to current theory and fight any revision to the death? William R. Meredith, the Beethoven scholar who carried the skull fragments from California to Mt Sinai, is surprised by the findings but amiably concedes it is “back to the drawing board” for all those concerned with why Beethoven died.

Perhaps it is the influence of James Barron, the Times reporter, which accounts for the geniality of the discussion. Or perhaps he discreetly omitted the more combative comments made to him in researching the event. Certainly one can ask why the one large skull fragment reading is so decisive when the smaller one contained four times as much lead, and when the skull bone grows much more slowly than hair and naturally will not register high doses of lead that quickly.

Where we really need an antidote to poison in science

Is James Barron’s style is just so elegant that the scientists were influenced into civility, where they might otherwise have burst out with more indignant objections? If so, we would suggest to the Times editors that Barron might be assigned to look into the notoriously unsustainable paradigm in HIV/AIDS, the belief engendered by Robert Gallo, Anthony Fauci, Luc Montagnier and David Baltimore that HIV has anything to do with AIDS.

In a speech in Washington, D.C., Mark Wainberg, MD, president of the International AIDS Society opined that the actions of the HIV skeptics warrant criminal prosecution.  AIDS vaccine researcher John Moore of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Manhattan also told reporter Laurie Garrett "a charge of genocide would not be inappropriate."   Could it be that these intemperate remarks reflect their private knowledge that HIV/AIDS theory is, as the current movie House of Numbers has revealed, ridiculously unscientific?Perhaps his soothing manners might tone down the defensive alarm of defenders of this faith like the notoriously ungracious John Moore of Cornell, and the sinister Dr. Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University Aids Centre in Montreal and a Toronto AIDS conference organizer, both enthusiasts for jailing if not hanging those who publicly question their fond funding paradigm.

Both these men have instigated poison pen letters to university administrations and other employers of those who ask awkward questions about HIV/AIDS lore, seeking to have them ejected from their positions for not believing HIV is the cause of AIDS, in one case at least resulting in the victim failing to gain tenure at her university, after writing one of the best argued and most realistic books on the topic.

The excessive zeal with which the defenders of HIV/AIDS and its indefensible paradigm rush to suppress its questioning could do with public exposure in the Times. That a scientific belief needs shoring up by personal attacks on its skeptics is a very telling indication of its weak intellectual foundation, and the current certainty that the vast funding now attached to it is being poured down a very large rat hole.

The antics of HIV believers in trying to pin responsibility for many African AIDS deaths on Peter Duesberg and to undermine his position at Berkeley have reached morally disgusting levels in recent months, and we will post on them shortly.

All those who believe in good science in the public interest can only dream that the civility and open minds of Beethoven scholars and the scientists who are helping them out could somehow be transferred to HIV/AIDS, cancer research and other areas where the internal politics of the science is so corrupted and rife with self serving, anti scientific nastiness.

12 Responses to “Beethoven May Not Have Died from Lead Poisoning”

  1. MartinDKessler Says:

    Hi Truthseeker, Pretty cool that you analogized all of the incorrect diagnoses of Beethoven with the premature consensus on a disease that probably should not have been classified the way it had. The science of medicine at Beethoven’s time by our standards now was pretty crude. Even though Beethoven suffered much – and he probably documented it better than most, he still lived to the age of 57! Remember two of Beethoven’s contemporaries Franz Schubert and Mozart lived relatively short lives (Schubert: 1797-1828 : 31 years; Mozart: 1756-1791 : 35 years). By contrast, Joseph Haydn : 1732-1809 : 77 years who was also one of Beethoven’s teachers was a relative Methuselah – J. S. Bach lived to 65 years (1685 – 1750) also a long time for people of that time. Some people of that time just took (instinctively) better care of themselves than others and had a good set of genes. Remember, life expectancy around 1820 was about 40 – and that was optimistic. In fact mortality back then looks something like parts of sub Saharan Africa today. Darwinian natural selection was more predictable for human beings then than now (in developed countries) – we for humanitarian reasons – some not, keep a lot of people alive way past their time – sometimes against their will. With AIDS “medicine”, Darwinian natural selection was turned on its head – the “treatments” killed the patients prematurely when more conventional medicine aimed at the specific diseases would have extended their lives. The HIV/AIDS diagnosis actually obscured the path to treatment rather than led to it – just like psychiatric “diagnosis”.

  2. Truthseeker Says:

    Thanks Martin, that is an interesting perspective, saying that we (and Beethoven) are lucky he lived until 57. It is heartrending though to contemplate the genius in music that has been cut short by premature illness and death. What Mozart (35), Albeniz (48), Bizet (37), Chopin (39), Gershwin (38), Pergolesi (26) Purcell (36), Schubert (31), Kurt Weill (49), Schumann (45), Clifford Brown (25), Von Weber (39), Bunny Berrigan (33), Chick Webb (33), Paul Chambers (33), Fats Navarro (26), Charlie Christian (25), Bix Beiderbecke (28), Charlie Parker (34), Robert Johnson (27), Clarence Pinetop Smith (24), John Coltrane (40) would have achieved if only they had lived long like Verdi or Armstrong. What the world would have won if only medicine had been more advanced. Of course, many of the jazz performers and of course Chopin died of TB, which they would have labeled AIDS if that have been invented by then. Wait, what am I saying? They would probably label it AIDS now if they could.

    Gershwin might even have learned to write great orchestral music to match his celestial pop songs and music for stage (Porgy and Bess, heavy handed though it might be), and screen (Shall We Dance). Imagine if he had been able to live a few more years in Europe and surmount the insidious commercial spirit which seems to handicap American composers, even masters such as the well traveled Lenny Bernstein, when they try the bigger works.

    Thank God Cole Porter lasted till 73.

  3. MartinDKessler Says:

    Hi Truthseeker, Actually Gershwin composed a considerable amount of orchestral music. I would consider Gershwin to be more like a Mozart or Beethoven or even John Williams because his music was composed for the audience unlike Arnold Shoenberg or Aaron Copeland (before he changed his tune) or currently Elliot Carter (who is 100 years old). Igor Stravinsky himself was extremely impressed with Gershwin. Gershwin wanted to study composition under Stravinsky who told him he didn’t need any training. The same with Nadia Boulanger (who also refused to teach him). I had read an interesting article in the New York Times about what kind of musical productivity would have occurred for composers who lived comparatively short lives : it was a mixed bag. Shubert for instance (according to the article) had curtailed his compositional productivity years before he died. Elliot Carter’s music is getting quite a renaissance. He is still productive. I, myself, find his music not very satisfying to listen to prefering his earlier music that was more influenced by Aaron Copeland. In fact Carter’s first piano sonata was directly influenced by Copeland’s own piano sonata. Bach was still composing even on his deathbed – Die Kunst der Fuge – The Art of the Fugue – while blind, dictating the notes to a scribe – the last composition stopping in the middle – and played that way by many performers.

  4. Truthseeker Says:

    Well, I was just firing a cheap shot against the idea that Gershwin’s orchestral music was worth as much as his sprinkling of supreme popular songs (They Cant Take That Away From Me, They All Laughed (At Christopher Columbus), Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off) , let alone Mozart’s or Beethoven’s orchestral mountain ranges, or even John Williams’ valleys, since it seems so bombastic. Is this because composers who grow up in the States tend to be permanently taken over in some sense by the innate trading mentality of the culture, even as their genius rises far above it? You remind us that Mozart and Beethoven wrote for an audience, which is true, but the audience was somewhat different in nature, the leisured genteel and aristocratic classes of the time, whose patronage was freer of the aesthetic beguilement of the paying mass audience, which may lead to the heavyhandedness I was referring to in works like Rhapsody in Blue, or even Fascinating Rhythm. This results in works which are catchy in their riffs but tend to have a kind of brass band stationary quality where the musical development gets somewhat bogged down, like an athlete trying to run across a ploughed field eg Porgy and Bess’s “Summertime” or even the superficially sprightly “I Got Plenty of Nuttin'”. But then the whole idea of marrying European orchestral techniques with jazz and folk idiom is a doubtful one, to my mind, as other stage works have shown eg Lenny B’s West Side Story, with its host of gruesomely attractive numbers like “Maria”, “America”, “Somewhere”, “Tonight”, “Jet Song”, “I Feel Pretty”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool”, with their unique, hard to get out of one’s head melodies married to slowcoach rhythms set incongruously amid essentially snappy Jets-Sharks dance theater.

    Of course I am not knocking Gershwin’s musical talent as one of the greatest names in American music which needs to be celebrated with more performances of his early songs, which are too hard to come by. Where does one find out what When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em” or “Rialto Ripples” sound like?

    Not sure what article you meant – was it the 1939 one by Olin Downes? The Times search engine doesn’t come up with any others so far.

  5. Robert Houston Says:

    What’s truly “bombastic” are the occasional sneer-campaigns against brilliant American composers such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. It is possible that those growing up in a different culture may be ill-equipped to comprehend or respond to the the tremendous depth and beauty of their concert works, which relate to American jazz and folk idioms. While everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, the comments by TS on Gershwin and Bernstein’s music are frankly rather shallow, and suggest that he never really listened carefully to the works about which he writes so scoffingly – if indeed he actually heard them at all.

    The test of time has shown that Gershwin’s concert works have survived very well and are immensely beloved by American concert audiences, who are still thrilled by performances of Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the monumental Concerto in F. These are sublime masterpieces that rival anything in the classical European repertoire, for every note from beginning to end is truly inspired, producing a profound and magical experience to most musically cultured Americans. The cheap put-downs of the great American opera “Porgy and Bess” and its hauntingly beautiful songs such as “Summertime” demonstrate only the inadequacies and insensitivities of the listener, not the music.

    The argument in the article about lead and Beethoven seems unconvincing, for only one bone sample showed normal lead levels, and the second showed levels nearly four times the average. Combined with the high lead levels in the hair samples, it would seem that the possible contribution of lead poisoning to Beethoven’s demise remains a plausible hypothesis that has not been adequately refuted.

  6. MartinDKessler Says:

    Hi Robert, I heartily concur. Gershwin wrote highly accessible music and like Aaron Copeland once Copeland changed from the atonal/12 tone academic stuff he’d been writing switched to the highly accesible music we all know an love like Apalachian Spring or Rodeo (I don’t think Gershwin ever wrote anything other than music in the idiom we know) . This is music you can retain in your mind after you left the concert. It’s the reason why a lot of contemporary composers write music that is atonal (the worst offender was John Cage and at the height of his powers of seeing what he could get away with wrote 4’33” where the pianist literally stopped playing for that amount of time – it was actually “recorded” – this is almost like the legerdemaine of the “AIDS” virus. Arnold Shoenberg who was one of Cage’s teachers told him he had no sense of harmony – I guess that was usefull in writing unharmonic music.

  7. Robert Houston Says:

    Indeed, Martin, music should be accessible and expressive, and not just a private game of tone rows. The four modern American composers whose works are frequently performed by American orchestras (i.e., whose works people actually care to hear) wrote highly melodic compositions. The four are Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, and John Williams. It’s true that Aaron Copland once fell under the influence of Schoenberg and experimented with the 12-tone technique (notably in the Piano Quartet, 1950), but Copland himself cited Stravinsky as his major influence. To me, his most effective works were the tuneful ballets Rodeo (1942), Billy the Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944), and his splendid concert pieces Quiet City (1940) and Fanfare for the Common Man (which opened the NY Philharmonic’s Memorial Day concert this week).

    Leonard Bernstein has credited his friend Copland as a major influence on his own musical style. One of Bernstein’s best-loved concert works was his wonderfully melodious Chichester Psalms, which was written after a failed attempt to write atonal music, He threw out the atonal stuff and produced a melodic masterpiece. His many great works include his 2nd Symphony (Age of Anxiety) and the charming opera “Trouble in Tahiti” (1950). Concertgoers are often treated to his wonderful Candide Overture and the glorious Symphonic Dances from Westside Story.

    The previous comments by TS on that musical are a bit baffling: does the oxymoron “gruesomely attractive” mean the songs are ugly – or luring one into horror? Either way, the description is totally off-base. These were some of the most finest songs ever written, anywhere, by anyone. TS also apparently laments that melodies with “slowcoach rhythms” are “set incongruously” to snappy dances. Westside Story was a study in contrasts – the lyrical Romeo and Juliet story set against the clash of warring gangs. I believe what TS may be referring to was the reprise of “Tonight” at the end of Act I, in which the slower melody is couterposed to an intensely rhythmic choral background. This was an absolutely brilliant device by Bernstein, which worked extremely well in the stage production that I saw.

  8. alan2102b Says:

    Fascinating stuff about Beethoven, thanks.

    On another matter: I’m surprised you have not covered the
    Medical Hypotheses flap (or is it a brouhaha?) here. Or maybe
    you have and I was not paying attention. If not, google “medical
    hypotheses duesberg charlton”. Another fascinating (and ugly)
    story. It seems that the editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses
    — Bruce Charlton — has been fired by the publisher, Elsevier, for
    having the temerity to publish an item by Duesberg. Interesting
    posts covering all are on Charlton’s blog:

  9. alan2102b Says:


    a striking post in Charlton’s other blog:

    FRIDAY, 4 JUNE 2010
    Anti-denialism – The return of Lysenkoism?


    the dishonest thugs of modern pseudo-science always try to portray dissent and disagreement as always a result of incompetence or dishonesty.

    The gangsters of pseudo-science cannot acknowledge even the *possibility* of an honest and competent scientist reaching a different conclusion from the one they themselves support. This is because the gangsters are transparently looking for an excuse to attack and to coerce; after all, gangsters need to make public displays of their power, or else they would soon lose it.

    Gang-leaders needs to beat-up dissenters, and they need to people to know that this is happening, and they needs these dissenters to be portrayed as deserving victims of attack. Consequently the whole concept of honest and competent disagreement has been banished from modern bureaucratic pseudo-science science.

    In the world of bureaucratic pseudo-science there are only two kinds of view – the correct view which is defined and enforced by the peer review cartel; and wrong views which are held by those either too stupid to understand, or those corrupted by evil.


    With the phenomenon of anti-denialism rife in mainstream discourse, we are just a couple of small steps away from full blown Lysenkoism. We already have systematic intimidation of scientific opposition at every level short of the physical. But I have seen demands from the gangsters of science that the sanctions against denialists be escalated. Destroying livelihoods is no longer enough. Soon, perhaps very soon, unless the tide turns, we may be seeing scientists jailed for their views.

    Since honest and competent dissent is not recognized, anyone who disagrees with the peer review cartel is either labeled as too stupid to understand or as competent but wicked. It is the competent dissenters who are therefore most at risk under Lysenkoism, but disagreement from a competent scientist marks them as evil and deserving of punishment.


    On present trends we may expect to see prominent denialists and dissenters jailed for being ‘wrong’ (as judged by peer review), jailed for the public good, jailed ‘to save ‘millions of lives’ – but jailed in reality for opposition to the ruling gangsters of bureaucratic pseudo-science and because anti-denialists absolutely require a continuous supply of victims to beat-up on.

  10. Truthseeker Says:

    In his misplaced enthusiasm for promoting Gershwin et al’s orchestral works as better than they are, Robert Houston seems to say nothing more than they are popular, or that he personally thinks they are “brilliant”, therefore they must be deserving of the word “masterpiece”. (Martin Kessler seems to agree, that if a work is “accessible” therefore it is a masterpiece, is that right?). In fact, there is very little correlation between popularity and music that transcends the age, and indeed there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination here in Houston’s heaven between lesser and greater works of the same composer. Unlike Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, one ventures to suggest that Gershwin, Copeland and other lesser composers – good but not celestial – have their good and their lesser works, and to fail to discriminate between them shows either an inability to respond to the superlative as distinct from the merely good, or a bias, as in the feeling that in this great democracy we can do as well as the European giants. But Alas, this, sadly, is not so. The American contribution to culture transcends the European only in jazz; in classical music it is an also ran, as it is in literature. America has yet to produce its Dickens, or Shakespeare, its Bach or its Beethoven. Perhaps it is too late for any country to do that. But in jazz, it reigns. What a sad thing it is that it so often takes Europeans to recognize this supremacy. But if you disagree, and want to put these composers on a pedestal, then you have to argue with more than subjective favoritism. As far as crowd opinion goes, I think I am safe in saying that few music lovers would put Bernstein at the same pedestal height as Bach. There is a ranking which is not subjective, even though liking for a particular composer or piece is partly subjective. What these composers lack, surely, is true genius. This is not to deny that much of their work is sublime. But one cannot instantly recognize it as a feast, as one can with the B’s and Mozart. Dessert is not the same thing as the main course, however pretty the tarts and puddings.

    Alan, unfortunately we wasted a good deal of breath on the humunguous comment threads on the Medical Hypotheses issue on at the Times Higher Education site, preceding the noxious denouement, and were waiting to deal with the issue here, after our horror at this abortion of all true scientific values had subsided. Well, it hasn’t, but we plan to post anyway – there is no greater example of how science has gone wrong in this day and age, where ignorance and politics have now triumphed so often over truth and decency.

  11. MartinDKessler Says:

    Truthseeker: I do not rate music like George Gershwin’s great just because it is accessible – more people relate to accesible music than to music of Arnold Shoenberg or Elliot Carter. There are today many more composers of merit than there were in Bach’s or Mozart’s time – for obvious reasons. The test of time determines a piece’s greatness not just its accessibility – don’t put words into my mouth. Thank you.

  12. Truthseeker Says:

    Martin, we paraphrased our understanding and asked Is that right? We wouldn’t dream of putting words in your mouth. But who are these many good composers who flourish today? I would be surprised if today was as fertile a soil for great music as yesteryear. Even jazz has lost its momentum in the face of modern life’s handicaps like lack of time and silence, and the loss of the culture from which it sprang with such energy. But what a blessing we entered the age of recording before it started. Now one can use the very greatest jazz as a soundtrack for going to Whole Foods.

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