Was Beethoven Lead Poisoned?March 27, 2023 8:57 am
On March 26, 1827, at age 56, Ludwig van Beethoven passed away in Vienna after suffering for years from a long list of ailments. While Beethoven will always be known for his striking symphonies, concertos, and masterfully arranged piano sonatas, he is also known for an enduring medical mystery. Beethoven suffered from several medical ailments like hearing loss, gastrointestinal issues, and swollen joints. Scientists and historians alike often theorize these ailments are the direct result of long-term lead poisoning. Recent testing done on Beethovens’ hair is shedding new light on this enduring mystery.
Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer, widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential composers of the Western classical tradition. Even more impressive to most was that he composed some of his greatest masterpieces after losing his hearing and being plagued with mysterious health issues.
Beethoven developed health problems starting in his 20s. These health issues included severe stomach pain and cramps, depression, respiratory problems, joint pain, eye inflammation, and headaches. In 1802, Beethoven wrote that as his last wish in writing, to allow posterity, with the aid of science, to find the cause of his deafness. A hair analysis conducted in 2000 showed lead levels 100 times greater than normal, cementing in many minds that lead poisoning caused Beethoven’s hearing loss and subsequent health issues.
BUT WHAT CAUSED THIS LEAD POISONING?
Beethoven was known for his love of wine and often consumed a bottle or more with dinner each night. At that time, lead was used in the low-quality Hungarian wine to improve the flavor. Beethoven also drank out of a goblet coated with a lead-based sealant. Another likely source of lead poisoning were the many medical treatments in the 19th century laced with heavy metals.
Lead products contaminating food sources is not something we only see in history books. In 2018, a 64-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital for lead intoxication due to daily cooking using a ceramic-coated frying pan with a worn surface. She had such similar symptoms to Beethoven that researchers reexamined medical reports and correspondence to look further into the similarities. Researchers concluded that chronic lead poisoning most likely caused his hearing loss, GI issues, depression, irritability, and other physical and mental problems.
In 2004, a second analysis of Beethovens’ hair was conducted. This analysis would cast doubt on lead poisoning being the cause of the composer’s long-standing medical issues, including his hearing loss. The second hair analysis confirmed that Beethoven had toxic levels of lead in his body at the time of death but concluded that his lead poisoning was acute and had occurred within weeks of his death and not over a lifetime of lead exposure.
SO HOW DID THE AILING BEETHOVEN INGEST TOXIC LEVELS OF LEAD?
The answer is found in researching prevailing medical treatments of the time. At the time of his death, Beethoven had a swollen liver and fluid filling his abdomen. Researchers believe he was suffering from chronic Hepatitis A from contaminated well water. With an already failing liver, Beethoven’s doctors gave him a compound to ease his GI issues which contained lead salts. His doctors also used bandages coated with lead acetate to dress wounds on his abdomen.
Lead poisoning most likely did not cause Beethoven’s hearing loss but science shows that he most likely died from acute lead poisoning.