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Beethoven's hair sample reveals interesting reasons behind the composer's deafness

The composer started losing his hearing in his 20s. A certain toxic substance might have caused it.

Beethoven's hair sample reveals interesting reasons behind the composer's deafness
Cover Image Source: A mural graffiti shows German pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven on a house facade on January 21, 2020 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Ludwig Van Beethoven is celebrated as one of the most brilliant music composers in history. Remarkably, he began losing his hearing in his early 20s and was completely deaf by the time he passed away at 56. Despite his deteriorating hearing, Beethoven's ability to produce beautiful symphonies continued to captivate and intrigue researchers and scientists. Experts continue to explore the underlying causes of Beethoven's deafness and other health issues. According to Smithsonian Magazine, research analyzing Beethoven's hair revealed exceptionally high lead levels, which may have contributed to his illnesses.

English actor Gary Oldman as composer Ludwig van Beethoven in the film 'Immortal Beloved', 1994. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)
Image Source: English actor Gary Oldman as composer Ludwig van Beethoven in the film 'Immortal Beloved', 1994. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

Australian businessman and devoted Beethoven fan Kevin Brown, who owned three locks of the composer's hair, donated them for the study. In 1802, Beethoven expressed his wish for doctors to investigate the causes of his illnesses after his death. He sent the locks to a lab at Mayo Clinic specializing in testing for heavy metals. As per the lab director Paul Janetto, one of the locks had 258 micrograms of lead per gram of hair and the other had 380 micrograms. It is staggeringly high compared to the normal quantity of 4 micrograms per gram, per The New York Times

BERLIN - JULY 03: A wax model of Ludwig van Beethoven is displayed in the Berlin Branch of Madame Tussauds on July 3, in Berlin, Germany. The famous Madame Tussauds wax figure cabinett is due to open its location in Berlin on July 9th. (Photo by Steffen Kugler/Getty Images)
Image Source: A wax model of Ludwig van Beethoven is displayed in the Berlin Branch of Madame Tussauds on July 3, in Berlin, Germany. The famous Madame Tussauds wax figure cabinet is due to open its location in Berlin on July 9th. (Photo by Steffen Kugler/Getty Images)

It is believed that the high levels of lead came from the wine Beethoven frequently consumed, which, in the 19th century, often had lead acetate added to enhance flavor. "These are the highest values in hair I've ever seen," Janetto shared with the outlet. "We get samples from around the world, and these values are an order of magnitude higher," he added. The composer's hair had 13 times more arsenic and 4 times more mercury than normal hair. However, according to the lab director, lead might have been the leading cause of deafness.

Illustration depicting German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) performing at the pianoforte for a group of friends, 1790s. (Blank Archives/Getty Images)
Image Source: Illustration depicting German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) performing at the pianoforte for a group of friends, in the 1790s. (Blank Archives/Getty Images)

William Meredith, founding director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, had started collecting the composer's hair. Now, Dr. Meredith, Mr. Brown and Dr. Janetto have published their study in the journal Clinical Chemistry. David Eaton, a toxicologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, was not involved in the study but confirmed that the composer's gastrointestinal problems were consistent with symptoms of lead poisoning. High doses of lead in his nervous system might have impacted his hearing.

English actor Gary Oldman as composer Ludwig van Beethoven on the set of the film 'Immortal Beloved', 1994. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)
Image Source: English actor Gary Oldman as composer Ludwig van Beethoven on the set of the film 'Immortal Beloved', 1994. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

Nader Rifai, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School, told The Times, "This man created some of the most beautiful music humanity was able to produce. It was so incredibly tragic that he couldn't hear this majestic music that he created." When he was 30 years old, Beethoven wrote, "For almost 2 years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity, but in my profession, it is a terrible handicap. And if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?" The artist also expressed his despair at not being able to hear a flute or a shepherd singing. The only reason he could hold on was because of his great desire to create art.

BEETHOVEN, Ludwing van (Bonn,1770-Viena,1827). German composer. (Photo by Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: BEETHOVEN, Ludwig van (Bonn,1770-Viena,1827). German composer. (Photo by Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)

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