Study of Beethoven’s hair reveals likely cause behind his deafness

Study of Beethoven’s hair reveals likely cause behind his deafness

Legendary German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was exposed to high levels of lead that were not enough to kill him but likely contributed to his various illnesses, including gut issues and hearing loss, researchers say.

Until now, it remained unclear what caused the liver and kidney diseases that led to Beethoven’s untimely death.

Previous research found that the composer’s hair contained extremely high levels of lead, concluding that poisoning by the metal caused his eventual death, but a later analysis revealed that this lock of hair belonged to a woman, not Beethoven.

Scientists then analysed several locks of Beethoven’s hair which were authenticated as part of a landmark study, helping in sequencing the composer’s genome.

While this analysis revealed significant genetic risk factors for liver disease and evidence of a hepatitis B virus infection that may have contributed to Beethoven’s death, it did not reveal the definitive cause of his deafness and gut problems.

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Last year, researchers conducted a toxin analysis on two of these locks – known as the Bermann and Halm-Thayer Locks – assessing them for lead using two different versions of a highly accurate testing technique.

Scientists found that the Bermann Lock had a lead concentration 64 times the normal amount, while the Halm-Thayer Lock had a concentration 95 times greater than the normal amount.

Such lead levels are linked to gut and kidney diseases as well as decreased hearing “but are not considered high enough to be the sole cause of death”, researchers wrote in a letter published in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

“While the concentrations determined are not supportive of the notion that lead exposure caused Beethoven’s death, it may have contributed to the documented ailments that plagued him most of his life,” Nader Rifai, one of the researchers from Harvard Medical School said.

“We believe this is an important piece of a complex puzzle and will enable historians, physicians, and scientists to better understand the medical history of the great composer,” Dr Rifai said.