This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. He is known for his symphonies, string quartets and other compositions — many of which he composed after he had already started going deaf.
Over the last few centuries, medical experts have tried to find out what it was that caused Beethoven’s hearing loss. Some suggested Paget’s disease, based on his autopsy report. Another possible cause was otosclerosis, marked by unusual bone growth in the ear. But no condition was able to perfectly explain all of Beethoven’s reported symptoms.
Now, a group of otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists) in Italy have found a possible new clue to the origin of Beethoven’s hearing loss. In 2018, they saw a patient in their clinic in Padua whose symptoms seemed to match Beethoven’s. Like the composer, her hearing had started to decline, but she had a few additional symptoms that matched reports of Beethoven’s ill health early in his life, such as general weakness and abdominal pain.
In the case of the Italian patient, the cause of her problems was easily found: Her blood and urine both contained exceptionally high levels of lead. For years, she had been using an old pan which had been steadily releasing lead into her food after the ceramic layer had worn off. Once she began treatment to remove the lead from her body — and stopped using the old pan — most of her symptoms improved, although her hearing loss was irreversible.
Could Beethoven’s hearing loss also be caused by lead poisoning? It’s not an entirely unusual suggestion, because in 2005 an analysis of Beethoven’s hair and skull samples showed that he did indeed have high levels of lead in his body. At the time, researchers speculated that this could be linked to a lead gauntlet he regularly drank from, or to years of drinking cheap wine. In Beethoven’s time, lead was added to some wines to improve the flavor, and Beethoven went through phases of heavy drinking
But while there is evidence that Beethoven had lead in his body, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it caused his hearing loss. However, some of his other ailments, such as his abdominal pains, seemed to disappear once he stopped drinking, just like the 2018 patient’s symptoms disappeared after she was no longer exposed to lead. And just like her, his hearing loss unfortunately did not improve after the initial damage.
But this is merely speculation, as stopping alcohol consumption did not remove the lead from his body and could have improved Beethoven’s health for a number of different reasons. Still, the similarities with the modern case are striking and it’s not impossible. It’s just difficult to be certain, because Beethoven is no longer around for a physical exam. We may never know the real answer, but no matter what caused Beethoven’s hearing loss, it did not stop him from composing pieces that are still enjoyed two-and-a-half centuries later.