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Beethoven started going deaf at the age of 20. Over 200 years later, we may know why

By the time Beethoven passed away at the age of 56 in 1827, the composer was totally deaf.

Beethoven started going deaf at the age of 20. Over 200 years later, we may know why
Cover Image Source: Ludwig van Beethoven on a walk. Found in the collection of Vienna Museum. Artist Schmid, Julius (1854-1935). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Ludwig van Beethoven is celebrated as one of history's greatest classical composers. Despite his brilliance, he was tormented by his deafness and the mystery behind it. Nearly 200 years later, researchers suggest lead poisoning as a possible cause.

Image Source: German composer Ludwig van Beethoven conducting one of his three 'Rasumowsky' string quartets, circa 1810. Woodcut by German artist Richard Brend'amour (1831-1915).
Image Source: German composer Ludwig van Beethoven conducting one of his three 'Rasumowsky' string quartets, circa 1810. Woodcut by German artist Richard Brend'amour (1831-1915).

 

Researchers from Boston’s Children’s Hospital, San José State University, and other institutions analyzed the DNA in two locks of Beethoven’s hair. They found extremely high levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury. The diagnosis was proven by several lab medicine experts led by Harvard Medical School biochemist Nader Rifai. The corresponding study was published on May 6 in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

Image Source: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Oil on canvas (1819). (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). oelLw. (1819).]
Image Source: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Oil on canvas (1819). (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). oelLw. (1819).]

The locks of hair that researchers used are said to have been clipped from Beethoven’s head by anguished fans as he lay dying, as per The New York Times. One strand had 64 times the normal lead concentration, and another had 95 times. These findings suggest that while the lead levels weren’t fatal, they were high enough to impair his hearing.



 

 

"These are the highest values in hair I've ever seen," study co-author Paul Jannetto, a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic, told The New York Times. "We get samples from around the world, and these values are an order of magnitude higher." The toxic metals in Beethoven’s blood also explain his lifelong gastrointestinal issues. He suffered from several illnesses, including jaundice. His death was attributed to liver and kidney disease.

 

The “Für Elise” musician was so nonplussed by his illnesses that in 1802, he famously requested that doctors study the cause of his illnesses and deafness after he died. So when researchers found a high amount of toxic metals in his system, they contemplated the possibilities behind it. One theory suggests his fondness for wine. Jerome Nriagu, a lead poisoning expert and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, explained that lead was commonly used in 19th-century European wines, food, medicines, and ointments.

Image Source: People seated in the wine gardens at Beethoven's House, Vienna. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: People seated in the wine gardens at Beethoven's House, Vienna. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Beethoven drank copious amounts of wine, about a bottle a day, and even more later in his life. So, Beethoven might have absorbed massive amounts of lead by consuming cheap wine. Lead, in the form of lead acetate, also called “lead sugar,” has a sweet taste. In Beethoven’s time, it was often added to poor-quality wine to make it taste better. Also, wine was fermented in kettles soldered with lead, which would leach out as the wine aged. Corks of wine bottles were also presoaked in lead salt to improve the seal.

The "Moonlight Sonata" composer also ate a lot of fish caught in the Danube, which was known for containing arsenic and mercury, CNN reported. This could have led to the lead poisoning in his system.

Image Source: The fish market at the Danube Canal. Vienna. (Photo by Votava/brandstaetter images via Getty Images)
Image Source: The fish market at the Danube Canal. Vienna. (Photo by Votava/brandstaetter images via Getty Images)

Nicknamed “The Spaniard” due to his dark skin and dark hair, Beethoven might have lived a troubled, despairing life, but swags of his fans have made the artist live on. The "pom pom pom" of his 5th symphony, piano sonatas, string quartets, operas, and choral pieces are regulars in cafes, concerts, music classes, and where not? “This man created some of the most beautiful music humanity was able to produce,” Rifai told the London Times, “It was so incredibly tragic that he couldn’t hear this majestic music that he created.”

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