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Lock Of Hair Finally Unlocks The Mystery Of Beethoven’s Deafness

Stock image of Ludwig van Beethoven, circa 1820.

People often wonder how a deaf Ludwig van Beethoven was able to compose such beautiful and complex music. Although many know that the composer had no hearing, they don’t know that he wasn’t born that way. Beethoven began losing his hearing at the age of 28. He never stopped composing, even after his diagnosis as completely deaf at 44. There has been much speculation about the cause of Beethoven’s deafness.

Until recently, there were a wide variety of guesses. The most believable theory was that he suffered from Paget’s disease, which affected bone growth and caused compression of a cranial nerve. Beethoven’s head became large, and his facial features changed like Paget’s disease. Other theories included brain trauma, neurosyphilis, and otosclerosis.

On March 27, 1827, Karl Rokitansky performed an autopsy on Beethoven. Rokitansky is the father of modern morbid anatomy. Although he performed 59,786 autopsies, Beethoven’s post-mortem was his first. Rokitansky ruled out all the speculations except Paget’s disease as the likely reason Beethoven was deaf. The cause of death was officially alcoholic liver disease because depression led Beethoven to drink… a lot. That was all we knew until his hair was studied using modern scientific methods.

Left image shows handwritten letter from Paul Hill requesting information about the lock of Beethoven's hair in the right image.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Modern Science Determining Why Beethoven Was Deaf

Before his death, Beethoven wrote a letter asking that experts scrutinize his condition. Now, generations later, his surviving family attempts to honor that request. Locks of the composer’s hair were sent to the Mayo Clinic, where they underwent DNA testing using innovative new technology. What they learned has been incredible.

Scientists determined that Beethoven had excessive amounts of lead in his body. That likely contributed to his gastrointestinal issues and liver and kidney failure. It may also be a factor in Beethoven’s deafness. The lead may have affected his nervous system, contributing to his hearing loss. The research is ongoing and will hopefully provide added insight.

You can find the source of this story’s featured image here.

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