Michael H. StevensUniversity of Utah School of Medicine, USA
Title: The Lead Poisoning of Beethoven and Handel
David Hunter, a musicologist, has suggested that both Beethoven and Handel had chronic lead poisoning from the wine that they drank. These two eminent musical composers had some striking similarities. Beethoven had alcohol dependency and preferred wine to which lead had been added to improve the taste. Handel was obese due to an eating disorder that included drinking tainted wine after large meals. They both had paresthesia of their extremities that they interpreted as rheumatism. This is a common sensory symptom from chronic lead poisoning. Their differences are marked in that Beethoven was profoundly deaf by the end of his life whereas Handel had remarkably good hearing. Handel had paresis of three fingers of his right hand, whereas Beethoven lacked any motor symptoms. Beethoven reported recurrent abdominal pain suggestive of lead colic, whereas it can only be inferred that this symptom was present in Handel. Lead poisoning is likely in Handel because his paralysis was consistent with radial nerve involvement in the dominant hand. In addition, it was cured by hot baths, which have been shown to reduce total body lead content by exchanging with iron and calcium ions in water. Although lead produces predominantly motor symptoms in classic or subacute lead poisoning, and sensory symptoms in chronic lead poisoning, lead poisoning causes a variety of symptoms that depending on duration and level of exposure are extremely variable from person to person. It therefore seems likely that Handel had lead poisoning, but extremely likely that Beethoven did because of the confirmatory finding of high levels of lead deep in his skull bone which is a good measure of total body burden.