Scientists Reveal New Facts About the Death of Beethoven

Scientists have confirmed that Ludwig van Beethoven had lead poisoning, but it did not contribute to his untimely death.

To this day, nobody knows for certain what caused the liver and kidney disease that led to his demise. The German composer died at the age of 56 in 1827, following several years of declining health.

A new study by Harvard Medical School researchers shows that Beethoven was indeed exposed to high levels of lead. However, they were not high enough to kill him, putting an end to the long-standing theory that he died of lead poisoning.

Beethoven experienced numerous health problems, including gastrointestinal issues, hearing loss, and liver and kidney failure, which are all associated with lead poisoning. He was also known to have a fearsome temper, problems with his memory and chronic clumsiness––common neurological symptoms associated with such poisoning.

In 2000, researchers analyzed a lock of hair thought to belong to Beethoven and found that it contained high levels of lead. However, the hair turned out to belong to a woman, not the musician.

Last year, scientists tried once more to solve the mystery of his death. Nader Rifai, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, and his team tested several other locks of hair and confirmed they belonged to Beethoven by sequencing his genome.

File photo of a monument of Ludwig van Beethoven at Münsterplatz in Bonn, Germany. Hair from the German composer was found to contain lead.

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They then performed a toxin analysis on two of the locks, the Bermann and Halm-Thayer Locks, using a highly accurate technique known as mass spectrometry. This technique identifies chemical substances by cataloging gaseous ions in electric and magnetic fields according to their mass-to-charge ratios.

The results showed that the Bermann Lock had a lead concentration 64 times the normal amount. Meanwhile, the Halm-Thayer Lock had a lead concentration 95 times greater than the normal amount.

From this, the researchers were able to estimate that Beethoven’s blood lead concentration would have been 69 to 71 µg/dL. Although this is several times higher than a normal blood lead level for adults, it is not high enough to be considered the sole cause of his death.

However, it likely contributed to his many health problems.

“While the concentrations determined are not supportive of the notion that lead exposure caused Beethoven’s death, it may have contributed to the documented ailments that plagued him most of his life,” said Rifai.

“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 full findings of the study were published in the journal Clinical Chemistry.