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Beethoven may have had lead poisoning

Vintage portrait of famous German composer and pianist, Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Keith Lance/Getty Images
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Vintage portrait of famous German composer and pianist, Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Ludwig van Beethoven was a prolific composer. He's credited with 722 individual works, but his life was plagued by deafness, GI issues and jaundice. Now researchers suggest that harmful metals may have contributed to the great composer's health issues. Here's science reporter Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has a metals laboratory, which can test blood and urine samples for exposure to heavy metals.

PAUL JANNETTO: Like lead, mercury, arsenic. Clinically, our test menu is essentially the periodic table.

DANIEL: Paul Jannetto directs the lab. Usually, he and his team are screening kids for lead or trying to work out if a patient's symptoms might be due to heavy metal toxicity. But about a year ago, he was contacted by one of his colleagues with a rather unique request.

JANNETTO: Would we be willing to test Beethoven's hair for heavy metals? They always say, you know, an opportunity knocks. You need to answer the door, right? I absolutely said yes without even thinking twice.

DANIEL: For context, Beethoven's health struggles have been a topic of interest for almost two centuries. He began losing his hearing in his mid to late 20s and was fully deaf by his mid-40s. In addition, he suffered from jaundice and debilitating GI troubles. At one point, he wrote a letter to his brothers asking that his health problems be described after his death.

JANNETTO: He had wanted the world to know the truth behind the cause of his ailments.

DANIEL: A bit more than a year ago, scientists sequenced Beethoven's genome from preserved locks of his hair. They found genetic risk factors for liver disease but nothing else terribly conclusive. So Jannetto and others wondered about whether toxicity from heavy metals, something that gets deposited in hair, might have had something to do with it.

JANNETTO: Could this really be the cause of Beethoven's ailments? And so this would be an opportunity for science to help address one of these historical questions - was Beethoven exposed to lead?

DANIEL: So the owner of two separate locks of Beethoven's hair put something like two or three dozen strands in a special collection kit and FedExed it to the Mayo Clinic, where Sarah Erdahl, technical coordinator at the metals lab, received it.

SARAH ERDAHL: I used tweezers.

DANIEL: Were you tempted at all to touch the hair with your bare hand?

ERDAHL: No. No.

DANIEL: You weren't even tempted?

ERDAHL: No. My heart was fluttering, and I was like, oh my goodness, this is so significant. When you have that small amount of hair, I was like, every strand counts.

DANIEL: Erdahl carefully rinsed and treated the hair before running it through the instrument that measures heavy metals. The levels of arsenic and mercury were slightly elevated, but it was when Erdahl saw how high the lead levels were that she imagined a particular piece of music scoring the moment.

ERDAHL: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

ERDAHL: Just saying, oh, my goodness. You know, this is so much more elevated than any other patient samples we're seeing. This is extremely significant.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

DANIEL: The lead levels in Beethoven's hair were 64 to 95 times higher than the hair of someone today, likely stemming from the goblets and glasses he drank out of, certain medical treatments of that age and, says Paul Jannetto, drinking wine.

JANNETTO: We do know that Beethoven loved his wine, and back then, it was not uncommon to actually add lead acetate to less expensive wines to add a sweeter flavor to the wine.

DANIEL: Jannetto says that even for people of his time period, the lead levels in Beethoven's hair would have been about 10 times higher than average.

JANNETTO: What this showed is he had a chronic exposure to high concentrations of lead.

DANIEL: They wouldn't have killed him, but they likely contributed to his health problems.

JANNETTO: A lot of those documented ailments that Beethoven had, those are traditional signs and symptoms that a neurologist or clinician could see in a patient that was exposed to lead.

DANIEL: Like GI challenges, liver disease and hearing loss. These findings were published as a letter to the editor in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

HOWARD HU: Wow, that's some good science. I think it was pretty darn rigorous.

DANIEL: Howard Hu is a physician epidemiologist at the University of Southern California who wasn't involved in the research. He studied lead exposure and toxicity for almost 40 years and can't help but reflect on how Beethoven managed his virtuosic composing in spite of the lead.

HU: It makes you even more awestruck by what he was able to accomplish.

DANIEL: And perhaps the very struggle with his health, Hu says, helped shape the emotional contours of some of his compositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "MOONLIGHT SONATA")

HU: I don't know. It's fun to speculate about it.

DANIEL: For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.