Beethoven’s Doctors

Beethoven’s Many Doctors: Battling Deafness with an Arsenal of Treatments

Ludwig van Beethoven, the titan of classical music, faced a formidable foe throughout his life: deafness. This cruel condition, starting in his mid-20s, threatened to silence the very essence of his being – his music. In response, Beethoven embarked on a relentless quest for a cure, consulting a parade of doctors and trying a mind-boggling array of treatments. Let’s delve into this medical saga and explore the lengths Beethoven went to in his fight against the encroaching silence.

Early Misdiagnoses and Frustrations:

Beethoven’s initial encounters with medicine offered little solace. Dr. Johann Frank, his Bonn physician, attributed his hearing loss to digestive issues and prescribed ineffective herbal remedies. Dr. Gerhard von Vering, a renowned Viennese doctor, recommended “Danube baths” and tonics, with similarly disappointing results. These early failures highlight the limited medical understanding of deafness in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Desperate Measures and Unintended Consequences:

As his hearing deteriorated, Beethoven clung to any hope. He consulted Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, who subjected him to galvanic therapy – applying electrical currents to stimulate the ear – a treatment as painful as it was ineffective. Other doctors prescribed mercury and lead compounds, common remedies of the time but ultimately harmful, potentially contributing to his later health problems.

Innovation and Adaptation:

Despite the lack of a cure, Beethoven displayed remarkable resilience. He adopted innovative hearing aids, though their effectiveness is debatable. He continued composing, relying on internalized melodies and feeling vibrations through the piano. His “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a poignant letter detailing his struggles, reveals his determination to overcome his affliction.

The Legacy of an Unrelenting Spirit:

Beethoven’s battle with deafness remains a testament to human perseverance. While the medical treatments ultimately failed, they offer a fascinating glimpse into the historical understanding of the condition. More importantly, Beethoven’s story inspires us with his unwavering dedication to his art, proving that even the most formidable obstacles cannot extinguish the creative spirit.

Beyond the Doctors:

It’s important to note that Beethoven’s deafness wasn’t just a medical issue. It had profound social and emotional consequences. He struggled with isolation, communication difficulties, and the fear of his career being cut short. His resilience extended beyond medicine, encompassing his determination to maintain his social connections and artistic output despite the challenges.

Further Exploration:

This article provides a brief overview of Beethoven’s medical journey. For deeper exploration, consider delving into:

  • The specific treatments he received and their historical context.
  • The impact of his deafness on his personal and professional life.
  • Modern medical investigations into the possible causes of his deafness.

By understanding Beethoven’s fight against deafness, we gain a deeper appreciation for his music, his character, and the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The Many Doctors During Beethoven’s Lifetime – Some Highlights

During his lifetime, Beethoven called upon a number of doctors in the hope of finding a cure for his health problems and in particular his hearing troubles which, despite the treatments, progressed to profound deafness. The composer had frequent arguments, with many points of provocation from a refusal of certain practitioners to assume their responsibilities. In this Ludwig van Beethoven biography, we instructively publish the development and the personalities of the latter.


Assistant to Dr. Malfatti, he became Beethoven’s friend in 1806 and his medical advisor between 1808 and 1816, when he quarreled with the composer at his lodgings over a difference of opinion on a professional and musical subject. Beethoven appreciated his refined personality, his musical advice, and his quality of life. In 1831, struck by cholera and believing himself doomed, he decided to destroy all his correspondence with Beethoven for, he said, fear of contamination, but more likely from fear of making his personal documents public.


Professor of Natural History and medical technology at the University of Vienna, medical practitioner, adept at dietetics, he cared for Beethoven between 1820 and the start of 1826. He was a strong influence on Beethoven’s way of life and took a great interest in the duration and progression of his illness in the spring of 1825. A disagreement arose between them for an unknown reason and Braunhoffer did not respond to the requests of the gravely ill composer’s friends to attend his bedside on his return from Gneixendorf at the beginning of December 1826. Beethoven dedicated two canons to him: Dokter speert das Tor (WoO 189) in May 1825 and Ich war hier, Doktor (WoO 190) in June 1825.

von BREUNING Gerhard (1813-1892)

While there isn’t much to say about Gerhard von Breuning in this (Beethoven biography), he was an important part of his friend’s life. He was very close to Beethoven from a young age, to which he paid daily visits at his home in the last years of his life, from 1825-1827; he was not present at the time of his death. He became a private practitioner much appreciated in Vienna. He was the son of Stephen con Breuning (1774-1827), a childhood friend of Beethoven’s, and Constance Rushowitz. In 1874 he published a collection of memoirs on Beethoven titled “Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus”.

FRANK Johann Peter (1742-1821)

Originally from Zweibrücken (Sarre), he completed his medical studies at Gottingen and Pavie, where he was named professor and director of medical studies in 1785. His professional and scientific reputation took on a further responsibility in 1795 with the direction of the general hospital and health services of the poor in Vienna. His medical works on health care and preventative medicine date from this time. A victim of hostility and intrigues, he left Vienna in 1805 and accepted a professorial chair at Vilna in Lithuania; in addition, he was called to St. Petersburg to serve as the private physician to Tsar Alexander 1st, Emperor of Russia. In 1808 he returned to Vienna. Napoleon conquered Schönbrunn and in 1809 offered him a post in Paris, but he declined. He was Beethoven’s doctor from 1800 to 1809.

His son Joesph (1771-1841), doctor and composer, organized frequent musical soirees in Beethoven’s honour. In 1798 he married Crisitna Gerhardi, a talented soprano and enthusiastic admirer of Beethoven’s works.

von MALFATTI MONTE REGGIO Giovanni (1775-1859)

Born in Lucca, Tuscany, he completed his medical studies at Bologna and Pavie and then in Vienna in 1759, under the tutelage of Professor Johann Peter Frank. On his arrival in Vienna, he was named Assistant Chief-doctor of the General Hospital, until 1804, the date in which he changed to private practice. He was always greatly appreciated for his knowledge and kindness. He was the personal physician to the Archduchess Beatrix von Este and the Archduke Karl, likewise for the great number of foreign diplomats present for the Congress of Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815. His notoriety led to him taking the presidency of the Medical Society of Vienna, of which he was one of the founders. He is the author of many medical works, such as “Entwerf einer Pathogenie” which became a reference work. He was ennobled in 1837. He made the acquaintance of Beethoven in 1797, through their mutual friend Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, and became his physician in 1809 on the death of Professor Schmidt. He remained so until a misunderstanding led to a rupture in the friendship in 1816. Doctor Malfatti was called to the bedside of the gravely ill Beethoven at the beginning of 1827. Beethoven dedicated a small cantata to him Un lieto brindisi (WoO 103), composed for his birthday.

SCHMIDT Johann Adam (1759-1809)

Born in Aub (near Würzburg), he began his medical career as an army surgeon. He was named Professor of Anatomy at the Medizinisch-chirurgische Josephs-Akademie in Vienna in 1789. This institution, created by Emperor Joseph II in 1786, was also called the Josephinium. He was a royal and imperial advisor and a respected doctor, particularly in the field of ophthalmology. The publication of a number of medical articles contributed to his scientific reputation. A long term friend of Franz Gerhard Wegeler, who later wrote a Beethoven biography, the composer trusted him and appreciated his advice and his care; He cared from Beethoven until his death in February 1809. In his Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven appealed to Dr. Schmidt to describe his malady to the world after his death. He was also known as a violinist of talent. Beethoven dedicated the trio for piano, violin and cello in E flat major opus 38 (arrangement of the Septet opus 20) to him.

SEIBERT Johann (1782-1846)

Professor and principal surgeon at the General Hospital of Vienna, he performed the abdominal punctures on Beethoven at his home in the last months of his life.

von SMETANA Carl (1774-1827)

Renowned surgeon and ophthalmologist of Vienna, he was consulted by Beethoven many times in 1819 in regard to his hearing difficulties, and again at the end of his life for his sight troubles. The operated on a hernia for Karl, the composer’s nephew, in 1816. Beethoven called upon him for advice on Karl’s failed suicide attempt in the summer of 1826. He was a state advisor.

von STAUDENHEIMER Jakob (Ritter) (1764-1830)

Born in Mayence, he received his formative medical training in Paris and in chemistry under the direction of Antoine Fourcroy and at Augsburg; he continued his studies in Vienna under the authority of the celebrated clinician Maximilian Stoll. A practitioner of great renown, he was personal physician to Emperor Francis I. It was while staying with the imperial family in Bohemia in 1812 that he made the acquaintance of Beethoven and gave him health advice. He became his doctor in 1817. Adept at the usage of the baths, he recommended cures in Baden, where Beethoven stayed many times. The frequent oppositions and divergences between the two men, rising in particular from Beethoven’s non-cooperation in his doctor’s recommendations to abstain from alcoholic beverages, dotted all their meetings until the relationship ruptured at the end of 1824. This is the reason for Staudenheimer not responding to the calls of Beethoven’s prodigal family to treat Beethoven in December 1826. In 1821, he was attached to the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I and Empress Marie-Louise.

von VERING Gerhard (Ritter) (1755-1823)

Born in Ösede (Westphalia), he received his early medical training in Germany, France and England. A military surgeon, he became the director of the Health Institute of the hospitals of Vienna from 1797 to 1809; He was medical advisor to Emperor Joseph II. He became Beethoven’s doctor at the beginning of his hearing difficulties in the summer of 1801. His daughter Julie, a talented pianist, married Stephen von Breuning in 1808, the childhood friend of Beethoven; she died a year later.

WAGNER Johann (1800-1832)

Assistant pathologist at the Museum of Pathology in Vienna, he performed the autopsy on Beethoven at his home in the Schwarzspanierhaus on the 27th March 1827, and wrote up the procedure in Latin. He was named professor of pathology in 1829 but died three years later. During the anatomical investigation, he was accompanied by the young assistant Doctor Carl von Rokitansky (1804-1878) who was named professor at the University of Vienna in 1834. The latter achieved fame through his original scientific works which pioneered modern anatomical pathology.

WAWRUCH Andreas Ignaz (1773 -1842)

Born in Niemczicz (Moravia) on the 22nd November 1773 (the dates if his birth vary in his biographies: 1771 and 1782), he completed his studies in philosophy and theology at Olmütz then reorintated to medicine at eh University of Prague. After his medical graduation, he completed his scientific training in Vienna under the renowned clinician Professor Johann von Hildenbrand. In 1811 he received honours in history and medical literature in Vienna and taught Latin. The following year, he was named ordinary professor of pathology and pharmacology at the University of Prague where he was known and appreciated as the most popular teacher. His wide popularity meant that he was called to Vienna in 1829 to become director of a medical clinic and teach pathology and therapy of internal illness at the University, His career continued until his death on the 21st March 1842. He has many scientific publications on infectious pathology and parasites to his name. He was a member of the Imperial Medical Society. An enthusiastic musician and cellist of repute, he was a great admirer of the music of Beethoven. He was called to his bedside on the 5th December 1826 and lavished attentive care upon the composer until his death. Sometime later her published a circumstantial report on the master’s illness entitled “Ärztlicher Rückblick auf Ludwig van Beethovens letzte Lebenspoche” (the report appeared in the Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, Literatur, Theatre und Mode of 30th April 1842 and was dated 20th May 1827).

WEGELER Franz Gerhard (1765-1848)

Although this is a Beethoven biography, there is a lot to say about Franz Gerhard Wegeler. Born in Bonn, 22nd August 1765, of Alsatian parents, he began his medical studies in Cologne and completed them in Vienna where he was made a doctor of medicine in September 1789. On his return to Bonn, he was quickly entrusted with a teaching position and was then promoted successively to professor, dean and rector. In 1794, on the decision of the occupying French authorities, the university was closed, which lead Wegeler to seek refuge in Vienna for two years (1794 to 1796). After this time he resumed his teaching at the central maternity school in Bonn which he left in 1807 to begin private practice in Coblenz. Again he accepted official responsibilities and became medical advisor to the government in 1814, eventually taking his retirement in 1842. He died in 1848 at the age of 83. It was fortuitous that the made the acquaintance of the young Ludwig van Beethoven in 1782; he remained very close to him until 1787, the date of his first departure for Vienna. It was through his mediation that Beethoven entered into the close relationship with the von Breuning family whose daughter Eleanor (called Lorchen) Wegeler married in 1802. Throughout his life, Beethoven maintained regular epistolary contact with Wegeler. In 1838, Wegeler and Ries published their own Ludwig van Beethoven biography under the title “Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven”, followed in 1845 by a complementary volume by Wegeler alone.

WEISSENBACH Aloys (1766-1821)

Born in Telfs (Tyrol), he participated in the war against France as a surgeon and was named professor of surgery and chief doctor at the Hospital of St. John in Salzburg. He met Beethoven in Vienna in 1814 at the time of a scientific residence. Weissenbach published his memoirs and assertions on the deafness of the composer; this particular Ludwig van Beethoven biography was published under the title “Meine Reize zum Kongress, Vienna 1816”. An amateur play write and poet, he also eventually became deaf.