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Paul Jannetto, Ph.D., contributes to landmark discovery of Beethoven’s hair lead concentration

In a landmark discovery published in Clinical Chemistry, authenticated locks of hair from the composer Ludwig van Beethoven have revealed high lead concentrations after being analyzed at Mayo Clinic. Paul Jannetto, Ph.D., director of the Metals Laboratory at Mayo Clinic, along with his laboratory staff, completed testing on two independent and authenticated locks of Beethoven’s hair which confirmed the presence of high lead concentrations.

Dr. Jannetto also shared his findings in a New York Times article, explaining that one of the hair locks contained 258 micrograms of lead per gram of hair and the second lock contained 380 micrograms. The normal lead level in hair is less than 4 micrograms of lead per gram.

“These are the highest values in hair I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Jannetto. “We get samples from around the world and these values are an order of magnitude higher.”

Lead levels like those found of Beethoven’s are commonly associated with some of the ailments that plagued the composer, including renal and gastrointestinal problems and a loss of hearing. The journal article points to suggested primary sources of Beethoven’s lead exposure, including plumbed wine, dietary influences, and medical treatments.

The high amount of lead suggests it could have contributed to many of his ailments, a finding that enables historians and the medical community to better understand Beethoven’s complex medical history, says Dr. Jannetto.

Luci Gens

Luci Gens is a marketing manager at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. She joined Mayo Clinic in 2022 and has over ten years of experience in hospital-based marketing and communications.