Beethoven’s Hair Reveals He Suffered from Lead Poisoning

Researchers speculate that ingesting lead may have contributed to the famous composer’s hearing loss and other unexplained ailments.
A lock of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair in the collection of San José State University.
A lock of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair in the collection of San José State University. / Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

May 7, 2024, marked the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, unveiled to the citizens of Vienna in 1824. Two centuries later, Beethoven’s music, from “Für Elise” to “Moonlight Sonata” to the opening chords of his Fifth Symphony, remains instantly recognizable to people all across the world—in part because of popular films like A Clockwork Orange and Austin Powers.

Part of Beethoven’s enduring legacy involves the great irony of his life—his mysterious hearing loss from an unknown cause. Now, a new study suggests that Beethoven’s deafness may have been the result of lead poisoning. 

Mysterious Maladies

The German composer began losing his hearing in his mid-twenties, when his musical career had already taken off. Although he kept on composing and performing for several years, his hearing impairment ultimately forced him to withdraw from the public sphere, shun visitors, and live in self-imposed solitude until his death at age 56, just three years after his Ninth Symphony premiere.

The cause of Beethoven’s hearing loss is one of the biggest mysteries in music history. Theories of its causes range from tertiary syphilis and typhoid fever to lupus and Paget’s disease. Like many in the early 19th century, the composer suffered from a host of poorly understood and untreated medical issues, including bowel and respiratory problems. He was also a heavy drinker which likely brought on kidney and liver problems. 

Clues Lead to Lead

For the new study, published in the journal Clinical Chemistry, a team of researchers from Boston’s Children’s Hospital, San José State University, and other institutions analyzed authenticated samples of the composer’s hair. They found surprisingly high concentrations of lead, arsenic, and mercury. 

Portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827). / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The study notes that these concentrations of lead—between 69 and 71 micrograms per deciliter —are “commonly associated with gastrointestinal and renal ailments.” Beethoven may have ingested the metal through drinking wine (in which lead was used as a sweetener), eating fish from polluted rivers, or medical treatments. Such methods of poisoning affected many of his contemporaries as well. 

The researchers are not the first to suggest that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning. In 2008, an Austrian pathologist named Christian Weiter made the same claim, arguing the composer was killed by a lead-based cure administered by his doctor, Andreas Wawruch. While Reiter’s claim was dismissed when the hair he had analyzed turned out not to be Beethoven’s, the locks analyzed in the new study do belong to the composer, having previously been used to sequence his genome.

Although we can now say with more certainty that Beethoven experienced lead poisoning, we cannot yet conclude that it caused his hearing loss or other maladies.   

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