New analysis of Beethoven’s hair reveals possible cause of mysterious conditions, scientists say

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High levels of lead detected in authentic locks from Ludwig van BeethovenNew research shows that the composer’s hair suggests that the composer had lead poisoning, which may have contributed to the ailments he suffered over the course of his life, including deafness.

In addition to hearing loss, the famous classical composer suffered from recurring gastrointestinal complaints throughout his life, suffered two bouts of jaundice and suffered from serious liver disease.

It is believed that Beethoven died at the age of 56 from liver and kidney disease. But the process of understanding what caused his many health problems was a much more complicated puzzle, one that even Beethoven himself hoped doctors could eventually solve.

The composer expressed the wish that his ailments would be studied and shared, so that “as far as possible the world will at least be reconciled to me after my death.”

An international team of researchers set out nearly a decade ago to partially fulfill Beethoven’s wish by studying his hair strands. Using DNA analysis, the team determined which were truly the composer’s and which were fraudulent, and mapped Beethoven’s genome by analyzing his authentic locks.

The findings, published in a March 2023 report, showed that Beethoven had significant genetic risk factors for liver disease and hepatitis B infection before his death. But the results provided no insight into the underlying causes of his deafness, which started in his 20s, or his gastrointestinal problems.

Beethoven’s genome was made public, inviting researchers around the world to investigate lingering questions about Beethoven’s health.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to figuratively go through the authentic strands of Beethoven’s hair with a fine-toothed comb, revealing surprising insights.

In addition to high concentrations of lead, the latest findings showed arsenic and mercury still trapped in the composer’s strings nearly 200 years after his death, according to a new letter published Monday in the journal Clinical Chemistry. And the insights could provide new windows not only into understanding Beethoven’s chronic health problems, but also into the complicated nuances of his life as a composer.

A tangled web reveals lead

Christian Reiter, now the retired deputy director of the Center for Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, had previously studied the Hiller Lock, a hair sample long attributed to Beethoven. He wrote and published a 2007 article after discovering high levels of lead in the hair, suggesting that the lead may have contributed to the composer’s deafness, and possibly his death.

In a surprising twist, the 2023 genomic sequencing study revealed that the Hiller Lock was not Beethoven’s, and that it was actually a woman’s hair sample. But at the time, researchers did not test Beethoven’s newly verified hair samples for lead.

So the question remained: did Beethoven have lead poisoning?

A separate research team used two different methods to look for evidence of lead in two authentic locks of Beethoven’s hair: the Bermann lock, estimated to have been cut between late 1820 and March 1827, and the Halm-Thayer lock, which was cut by Beethoven was delivered by hand. to pianist Anton Halm in April 1826.

During Beethoven’s lifetime, it was common for people to collect and preserve locks of hair from loved ones or famous people, says William Meredith, Beethoven scientist and co-author of the 2023 genomic analysis and latest study.

The newer research found incredibly high lead levels in both samples: 64 times the expected level in the Bermann Lock and 95 times the expected level in the Halm-Thayer Lock.

“These levels are considered lead poisoning,” said lead study author Nader Rifai, professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and director of clinical chemistry at Boston Children’s Hospital. “If you walk into an emergency room in the United States with these levels, you will be immediately admitted and undergo chelation therapy.”

Beethoven’s diagnosis

Elevated lead levels like those detected in Beethoven’s hair “are often associated with gastrointestinal and renal disease and impaired hearing, but are not considered high enough to be the sole cause of death,” the study authors wrote. Because the researchers do not have hair samples from earlier in Beethoven’s life, it is impossible to understand when the lead poisoning began, Meredith said.

The study authors do not believe that lead poisoning was solely responsible for Beethoven’s death or deafness. But he experienced symptoms of lead poisoning throughout his life, including hearing loss, muscle cramps and kidney abnormalities, Rifai said.

Both locks also contained elevated levels of arsenic and mercury, about 13 to 14 times the expected amount, according to the study.

Study co-author Paul Jannetto, associate professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathology and laboratory director at the Mayo Clinic, conducted the analysis of the samples and said he had never seen such high lead levels.

But Rifai said he saw similar lead levels when he researched two villages in Ecuador, where the main trade is glazing tiles with lead from batteries. The villagers experienced mental delays, hearing loss and hematological abnormalities, which are common in liver diseases, he said.

Exposure to lead during Beethoven’s lifetime

Currently, there is no understanding of the average amount of lead in the bodies of people like Beethoven who lived in Vienna in the 19th century, Rifai said.

He said he hopes to access old hair strands that people have from their families to determine the baseline level of the population at that time, as there is no documentation.

But how did Beethoven have so much lead, arsenic and mercury in his body? The substances likely accumulated through food and drink over decades of the composer’s life, Rifai said.

Beethoven was known to have a preference for wine, sometimes drinking a bottle a day, and he drank lead wine. A common practice dating back at least 2,000 years, making lead wine involves adding lead acetate as a sweetener and preservative, Rifai said. At that time, lead was also used in glass production to give glassware a brighter and more attractive appearance.

Beethoven also loved fish, and at that time the Danube River was a major source of industry, which meant that waste ended up in the same river that was a source of fish caught for consumption – and that fish probably contained arsenic and mercury, Rifai said.

The report marks the first time lead levels have been determined for Beethoven and points to another possible cause for Beethoven’s kidney failure in the months before his death and the liver failure he experienced near the end of his life, Meredith said.

Lead poisoning appears to be the fourth factor that contributed to his liver failure, aside from genes that predisposed Beethoven to liver disease, his hepatitis B infection and his penchant for drinking alcohol, Meredith said.

Connecting Beethoven’s health and music

The composer wrote a letter to his brothers in 1802 asking his doctor, Johann Adam Schmidt, to determine and share the nature of his “illness” once Beethoven died. The letter is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.

But the documents kept by Beethoven’s favorite doctor, who died eighteen years before his patient, have been lost.

In the 1802 letter to his brothers, Beethoven admitted how hopeless he felt as a composer struggling with hearing loss, but his work kept him from committing suicide. He said he did not want to leave “until I had produced all the works I felt the urge to compose.”

“People say, ‘the music is the music, why do we need to know all this?’ But in Beethoven’s life there is a connection between his suffering and the music,” says Meredith.

May 7 marked the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony, largely considered his greatest work and his last symphony. Beethoven was then completely deaf and stood on stage as one of the conductors, but the orchestra was instructed to follow the conducting of Beethoven’s friend, who was also on stage. The concert marked one of the most triumphant moments in Beethoven’s life, and the singers turned him toward the crowd as they clapped and waved their handkerchiefs at the beloved musician, Meredith said.

But at the end of the evening, Beethoven came together with three of his friends who helped him organize the concert. What initially seemed like a dinner to reward his friends actually resulted in Beethoven shouting and accusing them of trying to cheat him out of money.

The outburst was ironic, since Beethoven was inspired in part by Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” when working on the Ninth Symphony, and the symphony’s closing themes include living in peace and harmony with one another, Meredith said. But above a sketch Beethoven made for the Ninth Symphony, he added the French word for despair.

“If you look back at his life, it is a life of despair. He became deaf. He never found a woman to love. He had terrible stomach problems since childhood. He really had a hard time maintaining relationships with people,” Meredith said. “When you understand the pain he was in and the paranoia he experienced because of his deafness, it makes the whole story of the Ninth Symphony much more complex.”

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