High concentrations of lead in two locks of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven suggest that exposure to the element – through plumbed wine (added as a sweetener and preservative), diet and medical treatments – may have contributed to the ailments that plagued him for most of his life.

The researchers believe the findings offer an ‘important piece of a complex puzzle’ that will enable historians and scientists to understand the composer’s medical history better.

Beethoven’s numerous health issues have been well documented: he is understood to have suffered from hearing loss and gastrointestinal issues and it is believed that he died from liver and kidney disease but there are still many questions about what caused these problems.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Source: © Brandstaetter Images/Getty Images

Exposure to lead may have caused some of Beethoven’s well-documented health issues

The two samples of hair were collected between 1820–1827 and were previously authenticated in a report of the sequencing of Beethoven’s entire genome. After the locks of hair were washed, dried and weighed the researchers analysed the levels of arsenic, mercury and lead using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

The results confirmed the presence of high hair lead concentrations, as well as increased levels of arsenic and mercury, in both locks of hair.

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s proposed conversion formula of values from hair lead concentration to blood lead concentration, the researchers estimated that Beethoven’s blood lead concentration would have been 69 to 71µg/dL. Such lead levels are commonly associated with gastrointestinal and renal ailments and decreased hearing, although they are not considered high enough to be the sole cause of death.

The 7 May marked 200 years since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was first performed in Vienna. The anniversary was celebrated with performances and broadcasts across the world.