Locks of Beethoven’s Hair Are Unraveling the Mysteries of His Deafness and Illnesses

Researchers found high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic in the German composer’s hair, which may help explain some of his many ailments

the composer beethoven wearing a black jacket and red scarf, pencil in and and a musical score in the other
A portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, painted in 1820. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven began losing his hearing in his 20s, a fact that deeply upset and embarrassed him. Over the years, his hearing loss worsened, and by the time he died at age 56 in 1827, the composer was totally deaf.

But the cause of Beethoven’s deafness has always been a mystery, along with the slew of other health problems he suffered, including diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Now, nearly 200 years after his death, researchers may finally have an answer.

An analysis of Beethoven’s hair has revealed high levels of lead, arsenic and mercury, researchers report this week in a letter to the editor of the journal Clinical Chemistry. The heavy metals alone probably weren’t enough to kill him, but they do offer a possible explanation for some of his symptoms.

Researchers tested two authenticated locks of Beethoven’s hair. One had 380 micrograms of lead per gram of hair, while the other had 258 micrograms. For reference, a normal level of lead in a gram of hair is around 4 micrograms or less. His hair also had 13 times the normal level of arsenic, and four times the normal level of mercury.

The high amount of lead, in particular, likely contributed to his gastrointestinal issues and deafness, the researchers write in the paper.

“These are the highest values in hair I’ve ever seen,” says study co-author Paul Jannetto, a pathologist at Mayo Clinic, to the New York Times’ Gina Kolata. “We get samples from around the world, and these values are an order of magnitude higher.”

But why did the composer have so much lead in his system? Researchers have several theories. Beethoven loved drinking wine, to the point that he continued sipping it by the spoonful on his deathbed. At the time, lead acetate—which has a sweet taste—was often added to cheap wine to reduce acidity and remove cloudiness.

The wine production process also added lead to the final product: Wine was aged in lead-soldered kettles, and corks were soaked in lead salt before being inserted into bottles, per the New York Times. Beethoven also probably drank out of a glass made from lead.

Lead was also a common additive to various ointments and medicines, which Beethoven used to help soothe and cure his various ailments. He took as many as 75 medications at one time, and many of them probably contained the metal.

In addition, Beethoven ate a lot of fish—much of which likely came from the heavily polluted Danube River.

“We believe this is an important piece of a complex puzzle and will enable historians, physicians and scientists to better understand the medical history of the great composer,” the researchers write in the letter.

One of the study’s limitations is whether—and how accurately—lead levels in hair correspond to lead levels in blood. Just because Beethoven’s hair contained high amounts of lead does not necessarily mean that he was suffering from lead poisoning.

“We have analyzed the hair of lead smelter workers and found there is too much contamination, unable to be removed from washing, to be able to infer blood lead concentrations,” says Ivan Kempson, a biophysicist at the University of South Australia who was not involved with the research, to Forbes’ Leslie Katz. “There are also several personal traits which can greatly affect the lead uptake—hair color for example, which influences how much lead enters the hair from either blood or external contamination.”

The researchers acknowledged this possible limitation, writing that while low levels of lead in hair may not precisely predict the levels in blood, “higher hair lead concentrations, such as those seen in this study, have been shown to correlate with kidney and liver disease.” They also note they used best practices to remove possible external contaminants before testing the samples.

The new findings build on research published last year that also gleaned insights from locks of Beethoven’s hair. In March 2023, a team of scientists reported in the journal Current Biology that they’d analyzed DNA extracted from the composer’s hair.

After narrowing down their samples to five locks that very likely belonged to Beethoven (and tossing out three that were either fake, traced to another person or did not yield enough DNA to study), that team was able to sequence roughly two-thirds of Beethoven’s genome. His genes revealed he was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had hepatitis B at the time of his death. One genetic variant, in particular, would have tripled his risk for liver disease.

Their DNA analysis also ruled out some possible explanations for his gastrointestinal issues, including lactose intolerance, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome. But the new findings focused on heavy metals add another layer to this picture and start to get at the causes of the composer’s ailments, the team writes in the letter.

Beethoven himself was plagued by the mystery of his poor health, and he famously requested in 1802 that doctors study the cause of his illnesses and deafness after he died.

While it remains to be seen what other secrets Beethoven’s hair will reveal, the public’s fascination with this troubled, talented artist will undoubtedly live on, says study co-author Nader Rifai, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School, to the London Times’ Tom Whipple.

“This man created some of the most beautiful music humanity was able to produce,” Rifai adds. “It was so incredibly tragic that he couldn’t hear this majestic music that he created.”

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