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Silent Clue: Surprising Cause of Beethoven's Deafness Potentially Discovered in His Hair

Study: Heavy Metal Presence in Beethoven's Hair Possibly Linked to Deafness
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Heavy metal presence in Beethoven's hair could be linked to his deafness and health issues, study says.

Jun. 3 2024, Published 3:03 p.m. ET

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A recent study examining Ludwig van Beethoven's hair suggests that the renowned composer may have suffered from lead poisoning, potentially contributing to his deafness and other health issues.

Researchers, analyzing DNA from two authenticated locks of Beethoven's hair, found significantly elevated levels of lead, arsenic and mercury, a study recently published in the journal Clinical Chemistry shows.

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The analysis revealed alarming concentrations of heavy metals in Beethoven's hair, with one lock containing 380 micrograms of lead per gram of hair and the other containing 258 micrograms per gram.

These levels far exceed today's normal standards, with lead levels typically around four micrograms or less. Additionally, Beethoven's hair showed 13 times the normal level of arsenic and four times the typical level of mercury.

Study co-author Paul Jannetto, a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic, remarked that these were the highest values of heavy metals he had ever observed in hair samples, indicating a significant exposure to toxic substances.

The researchers suggested that Beethoven's exposure to these metals might have contributed to his various illnesses, including the gradual loss of his hearing starting in his 20s, complete deafness by his late 40s, gastrointestinal problems and jaundice episodes, indicative of liver issues.

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While high lead levels are associated with gastrointestinal problems and hearing loss, the researchers cautioned that it's unlikely lead poisoning was the sole cause of Beethoven's death. However, they believe it may have exacerbated his existing health conditions throughout his life. The impact of elevated arsenic and mercury levels on his health remains uncertain.

Previous studies had also noted high levels of lead in Beethoven's hair, but these findings were invalidated when it was revealed that the hair samples belonged to a different individual.

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However, recent DNA analysis of verified locks of Beethoven's hair confirmed his exposure to hepatitis B and a high risk of liver disease, potentially influencing his health and contributing to his demise.

One possible explanation for the presence of these contaminants in Beethoven's system is his dietary habits. Beethoven was known to consume large quantities of wine, which in that era often contained lead acetate as a preservative and sweetener.

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Additionally, fish from the Danube, a staple of his diet, likely contributed to his exposure to arsenic and mercury since the river was known to be contaminated with both.

In Beethoven's time, it was customary to collect hair samples from notable figures, providing valuable insights into their medical history. The study of Beethoven's hair offers a glimpse into the potential causes of his ailments, shedding light on aspects of his health that were not understood during his lifetime.

The researchers believe that this study is a crucial component in unraveling the medical mysteries surrounding the great composer, offering historians, physicians and scientists a deeper understanding of Beethoven's health challenges.

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