Alumnus who investigated Beethoven's death speaks on campus

Ken Kemner's physics in careers lecture highlights weekend activities, which satisfy scientists and artists | September 23, 2004

What killed Beethoven?

Xavier alumnus Ken Kemner is an environmental molecular science group leader at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Argonne, Ill., and one of the scientists who investigated and confirmed that the composer's years of chronic illness were due to lead poisoning—and the toxins may have contributed to his death.

The 1986 graduate discussed his Beethoven research, other investigations and alternative career paths for physicists during the annual physics in careers lecture series on Friday, Oct. 1, in Lindner Hall, Room 103.

Using ANL’s advance photon source, Kemner and a research team performed nondestructive X-ray beam experiments involving side-by-side testing of six Beethoven hairs, a standard hair of known lead composition and a thin film of standard “lead glass” with a known lead composition.

The team found elevated lead levels averaging about 60 parts per million in the six Beethoven hairs. According to William Walsh, chief scientist for the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Ill., the average American has 0.6 ppm of lead in his or her hair, about 100 times less than Beethoven.

“The hairline is a timeline of exposure,” says Kemner. “We hope to determine if the lead levels were due to diet, and if there were multiple high doses or high background amounts.”

Kemner won the early career award in science from the department of energy's office of science, as well as the presidential early career award for scientists and engineers for his “seminal contributions in the development and application of high energy X-ray synchrotron radiation techniques to materials and environmental science.” The research led to a new understanding of microbe-metal interactions and could lead to new environmental biotechnologies for cleanup of hazardous waste.