A dozen fragments of the skull of Ludwig van Beethoven returned to Vienna where they will be studied and preserved by the Medical University of Vienna. These are the only known surviving fragments of the composer’s skull, collected from the exhumation of Beethoven’s body in 1863. The rest of his remains were reburied.
Two palm-sized fragments and ten pea-sized fragments broke off the skull during an autopsy performed the day after Beethoven’s death on March 26, 1827. They were buried in his coffin and buried on March 29. In 1863, the musical organization Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde organized the exhumation and study of Beethoven’s body (and that of Franz Schubert). Individual fragments were purchased at that time by the Viennese physician and medical historian Franz Romeo Seligmann. Seligmann was an art history and phrenology enthusiast and was present at the exhumation, so he took them on to do his own research on the skull of the musical genius.
The fragments remained with the family for decades and ended up in France when the family fled Nazi persecution. In 1990, American businessman Paul Kaufmann, Seligman’s great-great-grandson, inherited them after his mother’s death. He discovered the fragments in a family safe at a bank in France. They were in a metal box with “Beethoven” scratched into the lid. He loaned the fragments to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, where they were studied.
Some American researchers have questioned their authenticity, believing that the pieces were damaged differently in the 1827 autopsy. However, Viennese investigators in 1985 believed they were real, and Christian Reiter, a forensic pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna, provides strong circumstantial evidence that the fragments match the shape and grooves of a saw on an 1863 plaster cast of the skull. The fragments also contain high concentrations of lead, something that was found in Beethoven’s undeniably genuine locks of hair.
Austrian coroner Christian Reiter said 10 fragments, including two large fragments, one from the back of the head and one from the right side of the forehead, were of “great value”.
“We have received really valuable material here, with which we hope to continue research in the coming years. This is what Beethoven wanted,” Reiter said.
Reiter added that the composer struggled with the disease throughout his life and directly asked to study his body.
First things first: the authentication issue will be resolved immediately. DNA samples were taken from the skull fragments by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The results will be compared with DNA extracted from strands of Beethoven’s hair. By the end of the year, this question should be answered definitively.