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How Bad Was Beethoven's Lead Poisoning?
  • Posted May 8, 2024

How Bad Was Beethoven's Lead Poisoning?

No one knows what caused the liver and kidney disease that led to Ludwig van Beethoven's untimely death.

But one popular theory – that high lead levels killed the great composer – should be ruled out, researchers argue in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

Analysis of samples taken from preserved locks of Beethoven's hair reveal that while he did have high lead levels that probably contributed to his chronic illnesses, they weren't high enough to kill him, researchers say.

“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,” lead researcher Nader Rifai, a pathology professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release.

Beethoven experienced a heap of health problems during his life, including GI problems, hearing loss and disease of his liver and kidneys. He died March 26, 1827, at age 56.

High lead levels are associated with all these conditions, as well as other well-known traits of Beethoven's – his temper, memory lapses and chronic clumsiness.

Researchers first fingered lead poisoning as a potential cause of death in 2000, after extremely high lead levels were found in a presumed lock of his hair. However, further studies revealed the lock belonged to a woman, not to Beethoven.

In 2023, Rifai and colleagues decided to take another run at the mystery, using two authenticated locks of hair -- known as the Bermann and Halm-Thayer Locks -- taken later in his life. 

The Bermann Lock had a lead concentration 64 times the normal amount, and the Halm-Thayer Lock had a lead concentration 95 times higher than normal, toxicology revealed.

That would mean that Beethoven's estimated blood lead concentration would be 69 to 71 micrograms per deciliter – several times higher than normal blood levels for adults, but not high enough to kill him outright, researchers said.

Typically, modern adults are considered at risk for lead poisoning if they have levels between 3.5 to 60 micrograms per deciliter, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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,” Rifai said.

Beethoven's hair also had arsenic levels 13 times normal and mercury levels 4 times normal, researcher Paul Janetto of the Mayo Clinic told The New York Times.

A likely source of Beethoven's high lead levels is cheap wine, according to Jerome Nriagu, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and an expert on lead poisoning throughout history.

Lead often was added to poor quality wine to make it taste better, Nriagu told The New York Times. Wine also was fermented in kettles soldered with lead, and corks on wine bottles were loaded with lead salt to improve the seal.

Beethoven drank about a bottle a day, and even on his deathbed was sipping wine by the spoonful, experts said.

Beethoven's whispered last words – “Pity, pity – too late!” – came after learning his music publisher had just sent him 12 bottles of wine as a gift, The Times says.

The new study was published May 6.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on lead poisoning.

SOURCES: Association for Diagnostic and Laboratory Medicine, news release, May 6, 2024; The New York Times, May 6, 2024

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