How Hair Rewrote History

Was Napoleon poisoned? What mysterious illness plagued Beethoven? Was Ramesses II vain? Their hair holds the answers

Napoleon: cancer or poisoning?

For decades, the official cause of the French emperor’s death was stomach cancer. However in the 1960s the Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud stated that the symptoms displayed by the French emperor on his deathbed resembled chronic arsenic poisoning. He must therefore have been poisoned! Evidence supporting this hypothesis emerged in 1995 when measurement of radioactivity showed the undeniable presence in Napoleon’s hair of a level of arsenic greater than 10 ppm while the normal amount varies between 0.8 and 2 ppm.

Beethoven: a mysterious disease

“When I am dead, if Dr Schmidt is still alive, ask him to discover what my disease was,” wrote Beethoven to his brother shortly before his death. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that his wish would be granted.

Numerous doctors tried to treat the composer and to understand the reasons for his severe abdominal pain, his numerous bouts of depression and the irritability from which he suffered. In fact it was due to lead poisoning. A tuft of 582 hairs bought in London in 1994 by two music lovers provided the evidence: by studying their chemical composition with X-rays, scientists set aside the frequently invoked possibility of syphilis and recorded lead levels 100 times greater than normal. The cause of Beethoven’s poisoning remains a mystery.

Ramesses II: did he have highlights?

It was through studying the chemical composition and morphology of the melanosomes that L’Oréal laboratories working with the Atomic Energy Commission and the “Musée de l’Homme” showed that Ramesses II had naturally light auburn hair and might have used a colorant to accentuate the red tints of his hair.

Image source:

“RamessesII-ColoredRelief BrooklynMuseum” by Keith Schengili-Roberts — Own work (photo). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons —

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