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Did wine make Beethoven deaf?

Famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven may have become deaf as a direct result of his diet, according to a recent study from Harvard University.

Beethoven’s hearing loss, resulting in complete deafness by the time he reached his mid-40s, has been the subject of much debate over the centuries. All manner of causes have been theorised, including exposure to loud music, lupus and syphilis, but the latest research suggests that the man behind some of the greatest symphonies in the history of music went deaf due to lead poisoning.

Analysis of two locks of hair from the ex-composer’s head revealed levels of lead around 90 times higher than normal.

While the people of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could become exposed to the deadly metal through a number of ways, including in the form of white lead used to powder wigs, the researchers theorise that it was actually what he ate and drank that was to blame.

In the journal of Clinical Chemistry, the authors argued that “suggested primary sources of lead exposure include plumbed wine, dietary factors, and medical treatments”.

The “dietary factor” cited was the freshwater fish Beethoven consumed. Co-author Nader Rifai, from Harvard Medical School, told The Times: “He was known to eat a lot of fish, and the Danube at the time was very heavily polluted with all the industry.”

But it may also have been the liquid part of Beethoven’s diet that played a role in his hearing loss, according to Rifai: “You can see in the record that several of his physicians cautioned him to cut down on wine consumption.”

While modern wine-drinkers shouldn’t need to worry about the presence of lead in their evening (or morning) tipple, much of the wine Beethoven was drinking at the time was “plumbed”.

The practice of adding lead to wines dates back to the Ancient Romans, and possibly even to the Ancient Egyptians. The addition of the infamously poisonous metal supposedly sweetened the drink, made the tannins less aggressive, and helped to preserve it.

“Another thing it does is it removes the cloudiness from the glass: it looks more pleasant,” Rifai explained.

Unfortunately, while lead certainly could benefit the wine, it would have the opposite effect on the drinker, resulting in stomach pains, headaches, and, eventually, death. The Harvard researchers do not believe that the wine is what ultimately killed Beethoven in 1827, at the age of 56, but it did rob him of his hearing.

“This man created some of the most beautiful music humanity was able to produce,” said Rifai. “It was so incredibly tragic that he couldn’t hear this majestic music that he created.”

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