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An article in the London Times suggests that George Frederic Handel succumbed to lead poisoning:

 George Frideric Handel was a binge eater and problem drinker whose gargantuan appetites resulted in lead poisoning that eventually killed him, according to a study.

By the time of his death 250 years ago this month, aged 74, the composer of Messiah had for 20 years been fighting severe health problems, including blindness, gout, bouts of paralysis and confused speech.

According to David Hunter, music librarian at the University of Texas and author of more than 60 articles on Handel, these ailments were all linked to lead poisoning brought on by his notoriously heavy consumption of rich foods and alcohol.

Surprisingly little is known about Handel’s private life but evidence from portraits and contemporary descriptions supports the theory that he began to suffer from lead poisoning in 1737, when he temporarily lost the use of his right hand, an incident previously attributed to a stroke.

“People said that he made a miraculous recovery and that was what got me thinking,” Dr Hunter said yesterday. “It’s exactly the way that they treated lead poisoning at the time.”

Handel continued to have attacks and recoveries until, on the evening of April 13, 1759, he announced that he would no longer receive guests as he had “done with the world”. He died the following morning at the house in Brook Street, Mayfair, where he had lived for 36 years. The building in London is now the Handel House Museum and Dr Hunter’s theory is explained in the catalogue to its forthcoming exhibition Handel Reveal’d .

A small number of doctors were just beginning to become aware of the dangers of lead poisoning during Handel’s lifetime but their researches were restricted to working men who were overexposed to the metal, such as plumbers, roofers and cider-makers (who often used lead to line their presses).

The risk to the wealthy was not yet recognised but lead contaminated their wine, beer, cider, rum, gin, water and food, and Handel was more exposed than most. Although he wrote some of the most magnificent Baroque music and was rewarded handsomely with a court pension, his gluttony disgusted those who knew him.

The article describes Handel as a “binge eater and problem drinker” but I don’t believe that he was particularly unusual for his time.   Plus, 74 was a perfectly respectable age to attain in those days.

Nonetheless, an interesting theory in forensic pathology.


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April 2009