Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

Ludwig van Beethoven

hide captionLudwig van Beethoven was in discomfort and pain from his 20s until his death at age 56. Researchers now believe lead poisoning was to blame for his misery.

Classical Music Pages
A sample of Beethoven's hair

hide captionAnalysis of strands from this lock of Beethoven's hair found that he suffered from chronic lead poisoning.

Courtesy Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San José State University
Lead levels chart i i

hide captionThe blue rise at the center of the chart shows high levels in Beethoven's bones; the red lines show much lower levels in a bone from a control subject, who lived in the same historical period.

Argonne National Laboratory
Lead levels chart

The blue rise at the center of the chart shows high levels in Beethoven's bones; the red lines show much lower levels in a bone from a control subject, who lived in the same historical period.

Argonne National Laboratory

New tests confirm that Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning. The legendary composer, who experienced decades of illness that left him in misery for most of his life, died in 1827. Researchers aren't sure why his lead levels were so high, but they have some ideas.

"There are many possibilities," says Bill Walsh, who headed a team that studied Beethoven's hair samples and fragments from his skull at the Department of Energy laboratory in Argonne, Ill. The composer was a wine lover, and wine at the time was known to contain high lead levels. He also drank out of a goblet made partially of lead and stayed at a spa where he drank mineral water, Walsh says.

But Walsh says Beethoven may not have been exposed to higher-than-normal lead levels. The composer may have been hyper-sensitive to lead and his body may not have been able to eliminate it, Walsh says.

Walsh says researchers are convinced the hair and bone samples they tested are Beethoven's because they came from two different sources and were matched by DNA tests.

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