November 2000

A tangled tale of science

By Russell Martin
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In the days after his death in 1827, many of Beethoven's friends and admirers snipped off locks of his mane. It was the custom of the time, before the popularity of photography. Nearly two centuries later, the hairs collected by a young musician, Ferdinand Hiller, gave Russell Martin fodder for Beethoven's Hair. The book, a mystery of sorts, is best described as chemical thriller meets historical "how-dunit." The 500 or so hairs, snipped (and, more importantly, pulled) from the head of the master composer, traveled in a tightly sealed locket from Germany, to Denmark, and into the U.S., arriving at a Sotheby's auction.

After the auction, the delighted new owners ushered the hairs into the hands of scientists known for their expertise in hair analysis.

Because some of the pulled hairs contained follicles, DNA testing was also possible. And so it fell to William Walsh, a chemical engineer working at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, to oversee the analysis of Beethoven's hair. Walsh orchestrated the testing process in such a thorough and controlled manner that the results of the testing simply could not be doubted. In doing so, he solved the riddle of the musician's deafness and other ailments. Beethoven's Hair is a tale of science and humanity, and those who love classical music, as well as those who love a good tale, will enjoy untangling it.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.


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