Could Modern Medicine Have Saved Beethoven’s Life? We’ll Never Know.

Does the name Ludwig van Beethoven ring a bell? It should.

He’s this guy…Source: www.pixabay.com

He was one of the greatest composers the world has ever seen. He also suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, infectious hepatitis, and possible lead poisoning.

In October 1859, he became ill with a distended abdomen, diarrhea, and vomiting. Doctors tried to surgically reduce the swelling, and instead, caused a massive infection. When it became clear that the end was drawing near, Beethoven’s friend and his sister-in-law kept vigil at his bed side. After being informed that a bottle of wine was on it’s way, he uttered his very last words. They were: “Pity, pity—too late.” He passed away on March 26, 1860.

What’s remarkable was that, prior to his death, Beethoven requested his remains be autopsied—a wish that was carried out.

He showed evidence of sarcoidosis, hepatitis, fluid on the brain, and calcification in the kidneys. It’s even possible he had primary sclerosing cholangitis.

His cause of death could be attributed to a number of diseases and misadventure. It was common at the time—though illegal—to fortify wine with lead to make it taste sweeter; However Beethoven’s lead levels were no different than other man his age.

Beethoven’s life had not been easy.

At the end of his life, he was completely deaf and sat silently in the audience as his 9th Symphony premiered. He also suffered a great disappointment when the nephew he’d raised attempted suicide and then joined the army instead of becoming a composer. Not to mention, based on the number of diseases indicated in his autopsy, he probably didn’t feel well for the last few years of his life.

Today, thankfully, treatments for most of the things that plagued Beethoven have improved.

Scientists recently discovered a drug used to treat asthma and allergies (cromolyn sodium) can prevent scarring of the liver. If only such treatments, as well as cochlear implants, were available to Beethoven. He may have written many more symphonies, and he may have had a happier life.


Erica Zahn

Erica Zahn

Erica Zahn is passionate about raising awareness of rare diseases and disorders and helping people connect with the resources that may ease their journey. Erica has been a caregiver, and is a patient, herself, so she completely relates to the rare disease community--on a deeply personal level.

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