The Mystery of Beethoven’s Skull Remains Unsolved

Author: Yuvi March 27, 2023 The Mystery of Beethoven's Skull Remains Unsolved

Good morning. It’s monday. We’ll revisit the day I saw what was billed as a fragment from the composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s skull.

There it was, hanging in a contraption that took up a good part of the floor space in a small, windowless room: a fragment of Ludwig van Beethoven’s skull.

The medical researcher who aimed a beam at it said that was what it was. So did the Beethoven scholar who had brought it to New York from his base in California. The idea was to test it for lead, to confirm or debunk the persistent theory that lead poisoning had killed Beethoven.

The researcher, Dr. Andrew Todd of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, followed the readings that appeared on his computer screen that morning in 2010. Dr. Todd said a few days later that his tests with X-ray fluorescence had revealed no more lead in that skull than in an average person’s skull. “Beethoven didn’t have long-term high lead exposure,” he said, “so I think we can stop looking at lead as being a major factor in his life.”

I thought of Dr. Todd’s work last week when I read that scientists who had analyzed DNA from Beethoven’s hair had reached the same conclusion.

That might have been their least surprising finding. They also said that a famous lock of hair, one that figured in a best-selling book and a documentary in the early 2000s, could not have come from Beethoven. It belonged to a woman, perhaps the daughter-in-law of a Beethoven disciple who was said to have snipped a lock of the composer’s hair as he lay dying.

Another unexpected conclusion: A family in Belgium that goes by the name van Beethoven has no genetic ties to the man who wrote the “Moonlight” Sonata.

I wondered if the skull fragment had figured in that research, so I called Dr. Todd. He sounded crestfallen as he described a communication he received a couple of years after I watched him work. It was from the Beethoven scholar William Meredith, who had carried the skull fragment to Mount Sinai in 2010.

Meredith “conveyed to me that there were doubts about the provenance of the skull fragment that I measured,” Dr. Todd said. “Then he said there was new information, and it was possibly not Beethoven’s skull.”

dr. Todd said the revelation had been frustrating. “The manuscript that I had three-quarters drafted” for a medical journal “got put away with a harrumph,” he said. “If it’s not Beethoven’s skull fragment, there’s not much to say.”

What had happened to cast such doubt?

“Alas, the bone fragments — according to world expert osteologists in California — had been misdescribed” in the 1980s by two Austrian researchers, Meredith told me last week. A fragment I remember seeing with Dr. Todd was apparently from someone else’s skull, not Beethoven’s. (Osteologists are skeletal and bone specialists.)

The day after Beethoven died in 1827, a doctor sawed through his skull during an autopsy. When Beethoven’s body was disinterred for reburial 36 years later, the official report noted that the pieces of the skull did not fit together because numerous splinters had been lost.

Still, Gerhard von Breuning, who had known Beethoven, took the skull pieces home from the exhumation and lent them to a respected physician, Romeo Seligmann. Meredith said that Seligmann returned the fragments, and they were sealed in the coffin when it was buried the second time.

Seligmann “was known as a collector of skulls,” Meredith said, and some Beethoven scholars believe that he later put other fragments in the pear-shaped metal box that he had used for Beethoven’s—apparently without changing the label. And apparently among them was the fragment Dr. Todd had tested in 2010 as I watched.

Seligmann, who died in 1892, never mentioned having the skull fragments. The first time they were referred to was in 1944, when his son, the painter Adalbert Seligmann, drew up a will that said they were in the pear-shaped metal box. Adalbert Seligmann also said there was a document from an anatomy professor attesting to their authenticity. Meredith told me that the paperwork had been lost.

The fragments were eventually inherited by a great-great-nephew of Romeo Seligmann, who allowed Meredith, who was the founding director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University, to have them tested.

And tested again. And again.

Which is how the fragment I remember from Dr. Todd’s research came to be examined by the bone specialists in California in 2012, who found that the Viennese pathologists in the 1980s had misidentified it. It was not from the front of the skull, as the Viennese pathologists said, but from the top. And because it showed no sign of having been cut, as the frontal bone had been during the autopsy in 1827, it “cannot be from Beethoven,” one of the California experts wrote.

The obvious question is: Whose skull did Dr. Todd analyze?

It was apparently not that of Franz Schubert, who had been buried in the same cemetery as Beethoven and whose body was also exhumed when Beethoven’s was. Schubert’s bones were “brownish black-colored” and noticeably darker than Beethoven’s, according to an account from 1863.

Meredith said the answer could come with still more tests. “Now that the genome is known from the five locks of hair, the bone samples could be tested again and the DNA can be compared,” he said. “To me that is a nice, clear, scientific way forward.”


Expect rain, with temperatures near the mid-50s. The rain will persist through the evening, with temps dropping around the high 30s.


In effect until April 6 (Passover).

Dear Diary:

Soon after I graduated from high school, I moved to Manhattan to audition for Broadway shows. I had taken dance classes in my hometown, Philadelphia, and was a member of an ensemble of dancers on a local television show.

A friend from high school and the TV show who had already moved to Manhattan invited me to be his roommate in a basement apartment on 86th Street and Central Park West. A few days after arriving, I was hired as a busboy at a Greenwich Village restaurant.

Three weeks later, my friend and I attended an audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.” There were 250 other dancers there. We learned and repeated choreography for an entire day, with dancers eliminated as we continued.

Finally, six dancers remained on the stage. Each of us had been assigned a number.

“If I call your number, please leave the stage,” said the stage manager. “Thank you for your efforts.”

After the last number was called, my friend and I realized we were the only two dancers remaining.

“Will you two boys please step down to my desk,” said the stage manager.

Once we had, he had additional instructions: “Please come to the Rodgers and Hammerstein office in the morning to sign your contract,” he said.

My friend and I were astonished and proceeded to hug.

“Do you two boys know each other?” the stage manager asked.

Author: Yuvi

My name is Yuvi, I work as Sub Editor at

27 March, 2023, 11:51 am

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Monday, 27th March 2023

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