Ludwig van Beethoven was known for being both a brilliant composer and a difficult human being. For most of the almost two centuries since his death, his tendency toward irritability and depression has been put down to the fact he was a genius, since there’s a common perception that genius and eccentricities go hand in hand.
Recently, however, there’s been a trend to look for physical causes of some of the personal peculiarities of the great geniuses of the past.
In Beethoven’s case, you don’t have to look far for one possible cause: the fact he began to suffer loss of hearing at age 31, and by age 42 was almost totally deaf. Being a deaf composer is enough to make anyone cranky.
But Beethoven suffered from other medical problems: recurring abdominal pain, for example. And now, thanks to modern technology and a lock of Beethoven’s hair, scientists think they may know why: lead poisoning.
On March 27, 1827, the day after Beethoven died, a young Viennese Jewish musician named Ferdinand Hiller snipped a large lock of hair from the body. For a century, the hair remained in the Hiller family as a keepsake.
During the Holocaust, the lock was given by the Hillers to a Danish doctor, Kay Alexander Fremming, who was involved in the underground movement to rescue Jews and transport them by boat to Sweden.
When Fremming died, his daughter sent the lock of hair to Sotheby’s of London for auction. In 1994 it sold for $7,300 U.S. to members of the American Beethoven Society, who in 1996 formed the Beethoven Project to conduct research on the hair.
The four years of study included the use of beamed X-rays generated by the huge circular electron accelerator in the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, and chemical analysis conducted by the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, headed by Walter McCrone (who previously analyzed Napoleon’s hair, proving that he wasn’t poisoned by arsenic).
The eight hair strands studied showed an average concentration of lead of 60 parts per million. A recent study at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville, Illinois, of 6,205 patients found only 11 with levels above 60 ppm, many of whom reported abdominal distress, irritability and depression–just like Beethoven.
Lead is poisonous to many tissues and enzymes in the body, and can enter the body by ingestion or inhalation. The source of the lead that poisoned Beethoven is something historians will probably have a field day fighting about; lead was smelted in Europe in large quantities in the 19th century.
Lead poisoning initially may cause no symptoms; over time, however, damage to the nerves may result in pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities and muscular weakness. Other symptoms include anemia, headache, abdominal pain, memory loss, unsteady gait and kidney damage. Beethoven’s health was normal as a child; his symptoms didn’t appear until his 20s.
The analysis of his hair was also significant for what it didn’t turn up. The complete lack of mercury in the hair is a strong indication that Beethoven did not have syphilis, as some had theorized; in the 1820s it would have been treated with mercury compounds. No evidence of drug metabolites turned up either, indicating that Beethoven avoided opiates despite the pain he suffered in his later years, probably to keep his mind clear for composing.
One ailment of Beethoven’s that probably can’t be pinned on lead poisoning is his deafness. However, DNA analysis of the hair has already defined a significant portion of Beethoven’s genetic make-up, and as our understanding of the human genetic code grows, we may be able to find clues to his deafness within his DNA.
Future study of Beethoven’s DNA may also answer historical questions about Beethoven’s ethnicity; as a young man, Beethoven was sometimes called “the Moor” because of his dark skin, and some historians wonder if he had some African blood. His hair didn’t show any of the wrinkles or bends typical of people of African descent, but the jury’s still out on that question.
And what would Beethoven himself make of all this attention being paid to his health? It seems likely he would approve: in a letter to his brothers in 1802, the composer wrote, “After my death, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to discover my disease…so at least as much as is possible the world may be reconciled to me after my death.”