A Toxic Substance Found in Beethoven’s Hair May Solve an Enduring Mystery

For 200 years, Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness has puzzled experts and fans. But a recent discovery of toxic substances in locks of the composer’s hair may finally solve the mystery. Here’s what scientists found.

By Gina Kolata at The New York Times: William Meredith, founding director of the Ira F. Brilliant Centre for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, began searching for locks at auctions and in museums a few years ago. He and his colleagues ended up with five locks that were confirmed by a DNA analysis to have come from the composer’s head.

The result, said Paul Jannetto, the lab director, was stunning. One of Beethoven’s locks had 258 micrograms of lead per gram of hair, and the other had 380mcg. A normal level in hair is less than 4mcg of lead per gram. “These are the highest values in hair I’ve ever seen,” he said. Beethoven’s hair also had arsenic levels 13 times what is normal and mercury levels that were 4 times the normal amount. David Eaton, a toxicologist not involved in the study, said Beethoven’s gastrointestinal problems “are consistent with lead poisoning.” As for Beethoven’s deafness, he added, high doses of lead affect nervous system and could have destroyed his hearing. Lead had been used in wines and food in 19th-century Europe, as well as in medicines. Lead, in the form of lead acetate, also called “lead sugar”, has a sweet taste. Beethoven drank copious amounts of wine, about a bottle a day, and later in his life even more, believing it was good for his health.

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