April 14, 2014: Exposure to what toxin may have caused the deafness suffered by Ludwig Van Beethoven?

Recent analysis of Beethoven’s hair and bone indicates that he had lead poisoning.  A lock of his hair which was removed at the time of his death and stored in an airtight case was analyzed in 2000 by researchers in Illinois. Beethoven’s parietal skull bone was later analyzed in 2005. Both showed markedly elevated lead levels consistent with lead poisoning. The potential source for lead exposure may have been wine. At that time, lead was added illegally to inexpensive wine to improve the flavor. Beethoven was particularly fond of the adulterated or fortified Hungarian wine. It has been suggested that after the death of Beethoven’s mother when he was 17 years old, he began to drink wine to help deal with his loss.  Beethoven’s chronic consumption of wine tainted with lead may be the best explanation for his hearing loss. (Stevens MH et al. Lead and the deafness of Ludwig Van Beethoven. 2013 The Laryngoscope 123:2854-2858)


This question prepared by:  Donna Seger, MD  Medical Toxicologist


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Donna Seger, MD

Medical Director

Tennessee Poison Center


Poison Help Hotline: 1-800-222-1222