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Beethoven's Skull Fragments Return to Vienna

By Michael Vincent on July 24, 2023

Imagine discovering pieces of Ludwig van Beethoven’s skull in your safety deposit box. That’s what happened to U.S. businessman Paul Kaufmann, who recently donated those fragments to a Vienna university.

The Details: Kaufmann found the 10 fragments in 1990 inside a small box labeled “Beethoven”. The fragments are believed to have been passed down from Kaufmann’s great-great-uncle, Dr. Franz Romeo Seligmann, who received them in 1863 after Beethoven’s bones were exhumed for study. Two of the pieces are notably larger, from the back of the head and the right side of the forehead.

Why it matters: This story is more than just a bizarre slice of history, it’s an important step in understanding Beethoven’s life and health. The maestro had a series of health problems throughout his life, including a tragic loss of hearing and severe tinnitus. With these skull fragments in the hands of eager researchers, we may get new insights into the health issues that plagued this music legend. And that is the beauty of science meeting history. Who knows what they’ll discover next?

Zoom out: Just a few months ago, a team spearheaded by Cambridge University had a close look at five strands of Beethoven’s hair, sequencing his genome in the process. The results shed light on Beethoven’s health issues: not only did he likely have a genetic predisposition to liver disease, but he also endured a bout of hepatitis B just months prior to his demise.

His health complications started manifesting as early as 1795 with the onset of hearing loss, a situation that progressively deteriorated. Made worse by a severe case of tinnitus, by 1818, the once vibrant composer was functionally deaf.

Michael Vincent
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