Study Determines Beethoven’s Cause of Death

“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

Beethoven portrait

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.

6 Comments

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  2. Alphabet Green

    Hello.

    I am currently writing a fictional novel incorporating the death of Beethoven entitle ‘Ludwig’s Hi-fi’, and from reading excerpts from Schindler’s biography, I was under the impression that he was succumbing to symptoms of pneumonia on his death bed. Am I correct, or will I have to rewrite my prologue?

    Simon

  3. Hey, Simon! Good question! It seems that the lead poisoning – especially in such enormous dosages – would be a major contributing factor to the pneumonia that, according to Schindler, claimed Beethoven’s life (recall that “lead may have caused Beethoven’s decades of poor health, which culminated in a long and painful death in 1827 at age 56” – see article above).

    Here’s an expert from a great online article referring to the many various ways metal poisoning can affect the body, even causing death (pneumonia is included in this list as well):

    “Things that are poison do their damage mostly in two ways: 1)by interfering with normal physiology or the action steps that the body performs necessary to life and 2)changing the anatomy or structure of cells causing them to die or changing their ability to perform the physiology or action steps required for life. Either way, the result is the same. All action or physiology happens at the cellular level…Death can occur from metal poisoning but is dependent upon the dose. Usually people inhale or ingest small amounts of metals which build up in the body slowly interfering with function and slowly causing illness which may ultimately end in death” (taken from Dr. Jackson’s Online Clinic).

    So, no need to rewrite you prologue, though you may desire to include a mention of lead as a contributor to his deteriorating health and death. Happy writing! 🙂

  4. Alphabet Green

    Hello again!

    I delved into a bit more research last night, and found that as well as pneumonia, he also managed to contract cirrhosis of the liver. This was, as you so rightly stated, due to his imbibing from lead cups. I would also like to point out (in answer to James above) that Beethoven was not a particularly heavy drinker (unlike Mozart who was), due to bad memories involving his alcoholic father, and he personally stated that he NEVER drank whilst composing as he feared that it would interfer with his progress (unlike me, who HAS composed with a can of beer in my hand). I have now learnt that the best method of composition is to write with zero alcohol, put it away for a month, get drunk and THEN listen to it. A lot more pleasurable.

    Anyway, now that I know the true cause of his death, I can get back to writing my novel. Let me know, and I’ll send you the prologue when I have finished it. You might want to proof read it for me.

    Cheers,

    Simon

  5. Hi, Simon!

    “I have now learnt that the best method of composition is to write with zero alcohol, put it away for a month, get drunk and THEN listen to it. A lot more pleasurable.”

    LOL! I’ve never tried that, but it does sound like it might work! (I’d probably find myself less critical of my works…. hee hee hee…)

    Alas, poor Beethoven, who suffered so much…. I’m glad to hear your research is going so well! I’d love to read your prologue when you finish it….

    Good luck! 🙂

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