What caused Beethoven's death? Locks of hair once displayed at SJSU unlock mystery

Dustin Dorsey Image
Friday, May 10, 2024
What caused Beethoven's death? Locks of hair unlock mystery
A lock of hair once on display at San Jose State could unlock the mystery behind Beethoven's cause of death.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Two hundred years ago this week, Beethoven conducted his final symphony. He died three years later, and the cause has been relatively unknown... until now.

Who knew that a lock of hair could unlock one of history's biggest mysteries?

Everyone knows Beethoven is one of the greatest composers to ever live, and his death has stumped researchers for centuries.

"We know very little in the past about Beethoven's health," William Meredith said. "Like, we don't know what caused his stomach problems, we don't know what caused his deafness. But now, I'm pretty sure we know exactly what caused his death."

It's all thanks to locks of hair that were on display at Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State.

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Founding Director William Meredith always thought they may hold secrets, but his ambitions were ahead of the technology.

Finally last year, the hair was sent to a specialized lab at the Mayo Clinic to unveil the truth.

"Beethoven had severe lead poisoning," Meredith said. "And the degree of lead poisoning that he had would've affected his kidneys, which is one of the causes of death. But it would've also been one of four factors that would've influenced his death from cirrhosis of the liver."

High doses of lead also affects the nervous system, which may even explain what destroyed Beethoven's hearing.

The locks were displayed at SJSU to allow people to connect with Beethoven in a different way.

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But the owner of three of the locks wanted to make good on a promise.

"He said I don't want these sitting on a shelf in a museum," Meredith said. "I want them to be studied for what they can teach us about Beethoven."

The story goes that Beethoven asked his doctors to figure out why he had been so sick in his life.

And the locks finally gave researchers the answer Beethoven was searching for -- something Meredith never imagined would have happened in his studies.

"Mainly what music historians do is research things that we can find from the past," Meredith said. "You don't help make news, you report on things that happened from the past. So, this is really been making news about Beethoven that's brand new news."

And Meredith and the researchers all ultimately solved an age-old mystery.

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