German pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven is largely considered one of the most prolific and influential composers to have ever lived. He began learning to play the clavier — a stringed keyboard instrument — and the violin from his father, Johann van Beethoven, according to Biography. But Johann taught in a way that would today be considered child abuse for the rigor at which the elder Beethoven forced his young son to practice.
Biography describes Beethoven’s father as an alcoholic, and unfortunately that compulsion to over-imbibe also plagued the genius composer in his own life. In fact, it’s widely accepted that the cause of Beethoven’s death was cirrhosis of the liver caused by his love for wine.
Yet, there are other theories as to what caused Beethoven’s death at the age of 56 on March 26, 1827. According to an abstract published in the National Library of Medicine, other theories include infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, and Whipple’s disease. What’s more, Beethoven suffered from poor health for much of his life.
Interlude reported Beethoven commonly dealt with abdominal pain and chronic inflammatory bowel syndrome, or IBS. He also had rheumatic diseases, and of course, his most famous ailment — the loss of his hearing for reasons that have never been fully understood, according to Biography.
Beethoven died over a period of four painful months
According to Interlude, Beethoven’s illness came on in early December 1826 after a cold winter’s carriage ride followed by a night of sleeping in an unheated inn. By the time he got home, he had a fever and chills, yet he didn’t see a doctor for a few days. By the time he was evaluated, he had pneumonia, swollen feet, and was jaundiced. Over the next days and weeks, doctors drained his abdomen four times due to fluid build up.
Doctors supposed his illness was caused by liver failure, per Interlude. The great composer lingered in his sickbed for months until on March 24, 1827, he fell into a coma then died two days later. Interlude reported that a Beethoven biographer wrote, “the dying man suddenly raised his head, stretched out his own right arm majestically — like a general giving orders to an army. This was but for an instant; the arm sunk back; he fell back; Beethoven was dead.”
Modern physicians have reviewed much of the primary documentation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s illness and death.
“His terminal illness was characterized by jaundice, ascites, ankle edema and abdominal pain. The autopsy data indicate that Beethoven had cirrhosis of the liver, and probably also renal papillary necrosis, pancreatitis and possibly diabetes mellitus,” the findings indicated, per the National Library of Medicine.
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