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Beethoven’s Hair Confirms He Had Lead Poisoning – But It Didn’t Kill Him

A white stone bust of Beethoven, against a gray background.
Credit: Brita Seifert / Pixabay.
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Throughout his life, Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from a number of well-documented health issues. Classical music fans will already be aware of his progressive hearing loss, but he was also known to suffer from liver disease and recurring gastrointestinal issues throughout his life.

The great German composer passed away in 1827, at the age of 56, after a prolonged illness. But the exact cause of Beethoven’s death has remained unknown.

Now, a new study published in Clinical Chemistry, has ruled out one popular theory – that lead poisoning caused the composer’s early death.

Analyzing Beethoven’s hair

It’s easy to understand why many hypothesized Beethoven’s early death was caused by lead poisoning; the composer was infamous during his lifetime for his temper, memory lapses and clumsiness – all signs of acute lead poisoning.

In the early 2000s, scientists believed they had proven Beethoven’s death was due to lead poisoning, after analysis of a lock of hair (known as the Ferdinand Hiller lock) revealed extremely high levels of lead. However, subsequent genomic investigations revealed that this lock of hair most likely belonged to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, not Beethoven.

The same genomic research group recently authenticated several locks of the composer’s hair, as part of a project to sequence Beethoven’s genome. Among these were two locks of hair, known as the Bermann and Halm-Thayer locks. Both locks of hair were formerly in the possession of Alexander Wheelock Thayer, a renown Beethoven scholar. The Halm-Thayer lock is notably the only lock of hair that has a completely documented chain of custody, passing from Beethoven to the Austrian composer Anton Halm, before eventually becoming a part of Thayer’s collection.

Now, the Bermann and Halm-Thayer locks have been subject to new analysis led by Dr. Nader Rifai, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School.

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What killed Beethoven?

Rifai’s group studied washed and dried samples from the Bermann and Halm-Thayer locks using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and triple quadrupole inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (TQ-ICP-MS).

The Bermann and Halm-Thayer locks contained lead concentrations approximately 64- and 95-times higher than normal hair lead content, respectively.

Using formulae constructed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers estimated that Beethoven’s blood lead concentration would have likely been somewhere between 69–71 µg/dL (micrograms per deciliter).

This is several times higher than the normal blood level for adults and is associated with various gastrointestinal and renal ailments, as well as hearing problems. However, these levels are not high enough to be considered the sole cause of the composer’s death.

“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.”

So, what did kill Beethoven, if not lead poisoning? Recent genomic studies have found that the composer carried a strong genetic risk for liver disease, which may have been compounded by Beethoven’s alcohol use and a known infection with hepatitis B. By combining the insight gained from these genomic studies with further analyses of the composer’s hair, researchers hope to narrow down a more precise assessment of his disease risk and possible cause of death.

Reference: Rifai N, Meredith W, Brown K, Erdahl SA, Jannetto PJ. High lead levels in 2 independent and authenticated locks of Beethoven’s hair. Clin Chem. 2024. doi: 10.1093/clinchem/hvae054

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the Association for Diagnostics & Laboratory Medicine. Material has been edited for length and content.