A New Analysis of Beethoven’s DNA Reveals That Lead Poisoning Could Have Caused His Deafness

Despite the intense scruti­ny paid to the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven for a cou­ple of cen­turies now, the revered com­pos­er still has cer­tain mys­ter­ies about him. Some of them he sure­ly nev­er intend­ed to clar­i­fy, like the iden­ti­ty of “Immor­tal Beloved”; oth­ers he explic­it­ly request­ed be made pub­lic, like the cause of his death. The trou­ble is that, for gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, nobody could quite fig­ure out what that cause was. But recent genet­ic analy­sis of his hair, which we first fea­tured last year here on Open Cul­turehas shed new light on the mat­ter of what killed Beethoven — or rather, what increas­ing­ly ailed him up until he died at the age of 56.

This effort “began a few years ago, when researchers real­ized that DNA analy­sis had advanced enough to jus­ti­fy an exam­i­na­tion of hair said to have been clipped from Beethoven’s head by anguished fans as he lay dying,” writes the New York Times’ Gina Kola­ta.

With the gen­uine sam­ples sep­a­rat­ed from the frauds, a test for heavy met­als revealed that “one of Beethoven’s locks had 258 micro­grams of lead per gram of hair and the oth­er had 380 micro­grams”: 64 times and 95 times the nor­mal amount, respec­tive­ly. Chron­ic lead poi­son­ing, pos­si­bly caused by Beethoven’s habit of drink­ing cheap wine sweet­ened with “lead sug­ar,” could have caused the “unre­lent­ing abdom­i­nal cramps, flat­u­lence and diar­rhea” that plagued him in his life­time.

It could also have has­tened the deaf­ness that had become near­ly com­plete by age thir­ty. “Over the years, Beethoven con­sult­ed many doc­tors, try­ing treat­ment after treat­ment for his ail­ments and his deaf­ness, but found no relief,” Kola­ta writes. “At one point, he was using oint­ments and tak­ing 75 med­i­cines, many of which most like­ly con­tained lead.” Alas, the true dan­ger of lead poi­son­ing, a con­di­tion that had been acknowl­edged since antiq­ui­ty, would­n’t be tak­en seri­ous­ly until the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Accord­ing to the research so far, even this degree of lead expo­sure would­n’t have been fatal by itself. But with a bit less of it, would Beethoven have com­plet­ed his tenth sym­pho­nyor even con­tin­ued on to an eleventh? Add that to the still-grow­ing list of unan­swer­able ques­tions about him.

via NYTimes

Relat­ed con­tent:

Beethoven’s Genome Has Been Sequenced for the First Time, Reveal­ing Clues About the Great Composer’s Health & Fam­i­ly His­to­ry

The Secrets of Beethoven’s Fifth, the World’s Most Famous Sym­pho­ny

Did Beethoven Use a Bro­ken Metronome When Com­pos­ing His String Quar­tets? Sci­en­tists & Musi­cians Try to Solve the Cen­turies-Old Mys­tery

Beethoven’s Unfin­ished Tenth Sym­pho­ny Gets Com­plet­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Hear How It Sounds

The Math Behind Beethoven’s Music

Read Beethoven’s Lengthy Love Let­ter to His Mys­te­ri­ous “Immor­tal Beloved” (1812)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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