The lead-poisoned genius: Saturnism in famous artists across five centuries

Service of Internal Medicine, Complejo Hospitalario Universitario, Vigo, Spain. Electronic address: .
Progress in brain research (Impact Factor: 2.83). 09/2013; 203:223-40. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62730-8.00009-8
Source: PubMed


Lead poisoning (saturnism) has been present throughout the history of mankind. In addition to possible ingestion from contaminated food, one of the most important ways in which poisoning caused morbid processes was by occupational exposure. This exposition was pandemic in the Roman Empire, and it has been claimed that it contributed to its fall, but it also caused numerous epidemics in Western countries until the nineteenth century. In the case of artists, and since the Renaissance period, this toxicity has been called painter's colic or painter's madness. The latter term is partly due to the mental disorders displayed by some of the great masters, including Michelangelo and Caravaggio, although it was long recognized that even house and industrial painters were prone to the disorder. This chapter examines the historical evidence of recognition of such toxicity and discusses the controversies raised by the possibility of professional lead poisoning in great artists. In addition to those mentioned above, many other artists across several centuries will be discussed, some being Rubens, Goya, Fortuny, Van Gogh, Renoir, Dufy, Klee, Frida Kahlo, and Portinari. This chapter also briefly mentions the possibility of lead poisoning in two famous composers: Beethoven and Handel. Whether suffering from lead poisoning or not, about which we cannot always be sure, we should still highlight and admire such geniuses fighting their disorders to bequeath us their immortals works.

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    ABSTRACT: This review of the original autopsy report of Beethoven's remains indicates Paget's disease within the skull, which was dense and twice normal thickness, with dilated vessels at the petrous bone. The facial nerves were enlarged and the eighth nerves atrophied despite their sharing a common meatus at the internal auditory canal. Nephrocalcinosis and pyelonephritis with cortical and perinephric abscesses were also reported. The hypercalcaemia was probably caused by hyperparathyroidism, which may be associated with Paget's disease, and both may have played a role in his psychiatric symptoms as well as in his abdominal pain and gastrointestinal complaints. Since Paget's disease may also be associated with gout, some of the joint pains could be attributable to this as well. Hypovitaminosis A from chronic pancreatitis is suggested as a cause of painful eyes and either quinine abuse or severe hypercalcaemia as a cause of arrhythmias. Beethoven died of terminal cirrhosis with chronic pancreatitis, most likely related to chronic excessive intake of alcohol. Thus, Paget's disease, complicated by hyperparathyroidism, gout, and attempts to find relief of symptoms through the use of alcohol, quinine, and possibly salicylates can explain virtually all of Beethoven's medical problems, some of which appear to have influenced his musical compositions.
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