The poisonings of Handel and Beethoven

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was the first of the great entrepreneurial composers. Born in Halle, Germany, he was eventually appointed musician to the court of the Elector of Hanover, and when the Elector became King George I of England Handel moved with him and lived the rest of his life in London, producing a stream of operas and oratorios. His most popular work was the Messiah, which was premiered in 1742. This

* Although it is not recorded, it is more than likely that those exposed to high levels of lead may not have had grey hair because of it.

masterpiece may well have been written while Handel was suffering from lead poisoning although the only way this affected him was to give him gout, and clearly it did little to hamper his creative spirit. The lead undoubtedly came from his drink and he was particularly partial to port wine. On one of Handel's manuscripts he jotted a reminder to order 12 gallons of port from his wine merchant, and doubtless this drink was the cause of his gout, but there is no indication that Handel was affected in any other way by lead.

One previously unsuspected sufferer of chronic lead poisoning was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). We now have proof positive that, at least during the last year of his life he was heavily exposed to the metal and there is every indication that the terrible colic that afflicted him throughout his life was due to lead. Beethoven exhibited the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning and in 1802 he knew something was seriously wrong with his health: he was already showing signs of deafness. He wrote a letter to his brothers Johann and Caspar which said that after his death they should do all they could to find out what was the cause of his ill health. Beethoven never sent this letter to them and it was still in his desk when he died 25 years later; and it is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, named after the village on the Danube where the composer lived.

We have scientific proof that Beethoven was afflicted with lead. It was common in the nineteenth century to cut locks of hair from those who had died and to put these in lockets. Beethoven died on 26 March 1827, in Vienna; and the following day 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller came to pay his last respects and was allowed to cut a lock of the great man's hair as a memento. Hiller, who went on to become a composer and conductor, put the hair in a locket which he later gave to his son Paul. Although it passed to other members of the family, its provenance was never in doubt, and descendants of Paul's used the locket to buy safe passage out of Nazi-occupied Denmark in World War II. Their escape to Sweden was organized by a Danish doctor, Kay Alexander Fremming.

When Fremming died, his daughter sent the locket to Sotheby's in London and there it was auctioned in 1994 and bought by the American Beethoven Society. Six strands of the hair were analysed in 2000 at the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory where they were bombarded with electrons travelling close to the speed of light in a synchrotron. These create X-rays that excite electrons in the atoms of the hair and these can then be identified and their amounts measured. What this sophisticated analysis revealed was that Beethoven's hair had 60 ppm of lead, a hundred times more than normal. (The amount of mercury in his hair was normal, thus scotching a long-standing rumour that Beethoven's illness was due to mercury, and that this had been prescribed as a cure for syphilis.)

Of course the hair in the locket could only show the level of lead to which Beethoven was exposed during the last months of his life, but there is no reason to suppose that his eating and drinking habits were different then to what they had always been. Nor is it likely that the lead had been applied to the hair as a dye, because the strands cut from his head were grey, white, and brown, showing that he was naturally going grey and not trying to disguise it. There could have been many sources of lead contaminating the food and drink of the great composer. The most likely one would have been water taken from a lead cistern, wine, pewter drinking vessels, or lead-glazed pottery in which acidic drinks or foods like sauerkraut were stored. All these were known to provide high doses of lead at the time, and those afflicted suffered just as Beethoven did with painful colic and constipation, with damage to the nervous systems that could account for his irascible manner, and maybe even his increasing deafness, which became total when he was about 50.

Another famous man whose hair has shown high lead levels was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), seventh President of the USA (1829-37). An authentic sample of his hair from 1815 has been found to have 131 ppm, supporting historians who believed that he too suffered from chronic lead poisoning. Its source remains a mystery: did it come from medicines or alcoholic drinks?

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