Adding Lead for Flavor: Did Cheap Wine Destroy Ludwig von Beethoven’s Hearing?

Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably one of the greatest composers of all time.  Every single one of you has no doubt heard a piece penned by Beethoven, and if you haven’t, you really need to crawl out from that rock you’ve been living under all your life.

For your entertainment, DUBSTEP BEETHOVEN (was this lead-laced wine induced?):

Other than his epic collection of musical masterpieces, Beethoven is also known for his hearing loss.  There is a lot of speculation and theories as to why Beethoven lost his hearing, from genetic abnormalities to autoimmune disease; no one is 100% certain.

Beethoven began to notice problems with his hearing at the age of 27 (1798-ish) when he developed severe tinnitus (ringing of the ears).  By 1816, 18-odd years later, he was completely deaf in his right ear, with the left ear following shortly afterward.  One interesting tidbit of information about Beethoven was that in 1824, he had served as a guest conductor for a performance of his Ninth Symphony, and had to be physically turned around toward the audience after the piece was over since he could not hear the applause.

So, what really happened to cause Beethoven’s deafness?

The following symptoms have been reported either by Beethoven himself and are included in his medical record, or they have been relayed by other people from what Beethoven had described to them:

  • Gradual progression of hearing loss over many years.
  • Initial loss of high frequency pitches, followed by complete loss over many years.
  • No family history of deafness.
  • No mention of “otosclerotic involvement of the oval window” in the autopsy report.
  • Gastrointestinal problems (including diarrhea and severe abdominal pain).
  • Headaches.
  • Depression.
  • Shrunken cochlear nerves that lacked pith.
  • Family history of alcoholism.
  • Liver damage.

Possible Theories Debunked by Stevens et al (2013):

The following are all possible theories explaining Beethoven’s hearing loss, with the accompanying reasons why they may not be accurate based on a recent review by Dr. Michael H. Stevens and colleagues from the University of Utah School of Medicine:

1)      Cochlear Otosclerosis:  Caused by an abnormal growth of bone in the middle ear, often resulting in hearing loss.  DEBUNKED: In order to have cochlear otosclerosis, it would have been blatantly obvious to a medical examiner, and since the disease was known during Beethoven’s time, it would have been something noted in the autopsy report that this been what plagued Beethoven.  Recall the 4th bullet point

Photo by Frederick Dekkers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Frederick Dekkers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

listed above regarding “symptoms”.

2)      Autoimmune Hearing Loss:  Autoimmune hearing loss can be accompanied by gastrointestinal distress, a symptom that had been reported by Beethoven.  DEBUNKED:  Autoimmune hearing loss is typically bilateral in etiology, meaning that BOTH ears loss their hearing at the same rate.  Also autoimmune hearing loss typically occurs rapidly—on the order of weeks or months.  In Beethoven’s case, his hearing loss was unilateral, meaning that he lost his hearing on one side first (the right) before losing the hearing on the left side a few years later. Finally, Beethoven’s hearing loss occurred very gradually over many years, unlike the more rapid development seen in autoimmune hearing loss.

3)      Syphilis:  Some researchers have suggested that Beethoven’s hearing loss might have been neural in origin, related to the shrunken cochlear nerves found at autopsy, which could have been caused by contracting syphilis.  DEBUNKED: None of Beethoven’s doctors ever reported anything about syphilis in his medical record.  At one point, it was theorized that Beethoven was using an ointment containing mercury that was designed to treat syphilis, however, it was later discovered by testing Beethoven’s hair and bone fragments that the ointment actually contained ammonium and not mercury, thus providing further support that he was not receiving treatment for syphilis.

So, what really caused Beethoven’s hearing loss, and why the hell am I writing about this on a wine blog?

Analysis of Beethoven’s hair and bone fragments a little over a decade ago found that he had high levels of lead in his body at the time of his death.  Could Beethoven have been poisoned to death with lead?  According to the toxicological analysis, there were elevated lead levels in Beethoven’s hair and bone fragments, which is consistent with lead poisoning.  X-rays of the bone found lead deep into the bone, suggesting a prolonged exposure over many years, which is consistent with Beethoven’s self-reported hearing loss rate.

A study examining long-term exposure to low levels of lead in the Latvian population found that patients reported symptoms such as problems with mood, abnormal liver and kidney function, pain and numbness in the hands and feet, all of which were also reported by Beethoven throughout his ordeal.

So, if chronic low levels of lead exposure caused Beethoven’s hearing loss over time, how exactly was he exposed?

According to the study from the University of Utah School of Medicine, the researchers theorized that Beethoven’s lead poisoning came from…….wait for it…….WINE!

Lead in wine?  What?

During Beethoven’s time, apparently it was a common thing to add lead to inexpensive wine to improve the flavor.  Of course, this was illegal, but it didn’t stop people from doing it (tasty lead….mmmmm).  According to reports, Beethoven began consuming a lot more wine after the death of his mother when he was 17 years old.  For the next 10 years, his symptoms of tinnitus began to develop and became most severe around the age of 27.  After this, Beethoven reportedly began consuming even more wine in order

Photo by Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

to help ease his gastrointestinal issues, and after this increase in wine consumption did he begin complaining of hearing loss.  According to friends and local tavern owners, Beethoven reportedly drank an entire bottle of wine at every meal, which assuming they were cheap wines laced with lead for “flavor”, it corresponds nicely with the timeline of events regarding his hearing loss.

Many other of Beethoven’s reported symptoms and autopsy findings are also consistent with either long-term lead exposure or alcohol use, or both (liver damage, mood changes, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, etc).

Concluding Thought

The theory that Beethoven’s hearing loss was due to prolonged lead poisoning originating from tainted wine is a very interesting one, and based on the evidence presented is highly plausible in my opinion.  Of course, we’ll probably never know for sure what happened to cause Beethoven’s hearing loss, but if the result of this analysis tells us anything, it’s to avoid drinking cheap wine laced with lead for “improved” flavor!  I don’t think that’s much of a problem anymore, but is still interesting to learn the techniques that were being used to improve wine flavor during Beethoven’s time!

Cheers!

Do you agree with the slow poisoning from lead-laced wine theory in terms of what caused Beethoven’s deafness?  Do you have any other theories?  Do you have experience with lead-laced wine? (I hope not…..).  Please feel free to leave any and all comments!

Source: Stevens, M.H., Jacobsen, T., Crofts, A.K.  2013. Lead and the deafness of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The Laryngoscope 123: 2854-2858.

3 comments for “Adding Lead for Flavor: Did Cheap Wine Destroy Ludwig von Beethoven’s Hearing?

  1. Alec
    April 8, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Not too bad a theory. Lead acetate is known as “sugar of lead” for a reason….
    Though it was also used as an ingredient of topical astrigents, and was used in vetrinary medicine for an anti-diarrheal medication. Not sure if it was ever used in humans for that…but certainly it would’ve been possible to come into contact with it somewhere during that time period.

  2. April 8, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    I certainly hope I haven’t had any experience with lead-laced wine either!

  3. Ed
    April 25, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Beethoven is my favorite topic. He wasn’t one of the greatest composers, he was the GREATEST composer, if not the greatest artistic genius who ever lived. His body was exhumed and carefully studied and was found to have a disease, which caused is deafness, that could have been cured with an office visit today. What is interesting is that his deafness allowed him to create music that could not be played on the instruments of the day or by most of the musicians around. Ergo, he wrote in a perfect vacuum, allowing his one-of-a-kind genius to unlimited exploration of music without the realities of the instruments and musicians he had to work with. The pianoforte was invented because of him. He pounded the flimsy pianos of the day with so much power that he broke them regularly.

What do you think about this topic?