“By focusing the most powerful X-ray beam in the Western Hemisphere on six of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s hairs and a few pieces of his skull, scientists have gathered what they say is conclusive evidence that the famous composer died of lead poisoning.”
— Rick Weiss, Washington Post
According to this fascinating article, a study done at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago “confirms earlier hints that lead may have caused Beethoven’s decades of poor health, which culminated in a long and painful death in 1827 at age 56.” The hair samples used in the test “were from an authenticated lock of Beethoven’s hair purchased by a collector from Sotheby’s several years ago,” and, while the lead atoms in these samples were at levels 100 times higher than normal, “[o]ne metal that was clearly absent was mercury…a detail that weakens the hypothesis floated by some that Beethoven had syphilis, which in those days was commonly treated with mercury.”
“Still a mystery, however, is the source of Beethoven’s lead exposure, which evidence now suggests occurred over many years. Among the possibilities are his liberal indulgence in wine consumed from lead cups or perhaps a lifetime of medical treatments, which in the 19th century were often laced with heavy metals.” The lead poisoning does explain Beethoven’s serious health problems, which developed in his twenties and grew progressively worse over the years. His famous deafness, however, is a dubious symptom, since “deafness has only rarely been associated with lead poisoning.”
While there remain many questions left unanswered, science has made an enormous contribution to clarifying the exact cause of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death.