Mai, Francois Martin

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Mai, Francois Martin


Hobbies and other interests: Playing piano.


Home—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Office—University of Ottawa, 550 Cumberland St., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada.


University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, professor of psychiatry; Ottawa Hospital, Ottawa, psychiatric consultant; Canadian government, medical advisor for human resources and social development.


Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven, McGill-Queen's University Press (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2007.


Francois Martin Mai is a psychiatrist and an amateur pianist whose skills and interests uniquely qualified him to undertake research into the life and genius of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), which he did, and his conclusions can be found in Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven.

Beethoven, a student of Haydn, was a composer, a pianist, an orchestra director, and a prolific letter writer who suffered from a range of maladies, including mental and gastrointestinal conditions. He began to lose his hearing early in his career, and his distress and depression is reflected in his works. Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, indicates that he toyed with the idea of suicide.

Fifteen hundred of Beethoven's letters are still available. Mai draws on these letters, those written to Beethoven by others, the "Conversation Books" which Beethoven in his deafness used to communicate from 1819 until he died, doctors' notes, a postmortem report, and the conclusions from a 1996 toxicological study of Beethoven's hair that reveal lead levels one hundred times higher than the current accepted standard. Absent from the sample were any traces of mercury, arsenic, or narcotics, leading to speculation that the high level of lead may have been ingested in mineral water, lead salts used in wine making, or from the use of lead crystal for dishes. One conclusion is that Beethoven likely died of cirrhosis of the liver from his consumption of alcohol.

Although he was a genius, with an IQ estimated to have exceeded 165, Beethoven underachieved in the areas of language and mathematics. He began his study of music at age four and had a reputation for being a troublesome student. He never married, but he did propose to several women, one of whom rejected him based on his looks, and because she considered him "half crazy." The eccentric composer was cared for by many of the finest doctors in Europe. "Mai sets the medical practices in the context of the Enlightenment and European sensibilities as well as their political frameworks," noted Barry Zaslow in Library Journal. At the end of his life, doctors who had previously treated Beethoven refused to continue caring for him.

In addition to studying the facts surrounding Beethoven's health problems and death, Mai looks for the connection between his illness and creativity. He concludes that Beethoven suffered from depression and may have been bipolar. Other conditions on Mai's list include cirrhosis, irritable bowel syndrome, renal papillary necrosis, otosclerosis, bronchitis, idiopathic uveitis or scleritis, and fibromyalgia.

The final chapter, "Illness and Creativity," is a study of creativity and genius in an environment of illness, psychopathology, and substance abuse. It is noted that motivation, unique childhood experiences, a vivid imagination, and birth order promote creativity (firstborn children tend to be more creative). Music and brain development and function is also discussed.

The volume is enhanced by more than twenty black-and-white illustrations that include drawings of Beethoven and his eyeglasses and hearing aids. "Dr. Andreas Wawruch's Medical Report" is a five-page report written by Beethoven's doctor six weeks after Beethoven's death. Also included is a three-page medical history.

Booklist contributor Alan Hirsch wrote: "Although clinical in style, Mai sheds light on factors conducive to genius." Writing in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Tony Miksanek called Diagnosing Genius "an intriguing biography of a remarkably gifted and troubled man whose deafness and depression did not prevent his ascent to the stature of musical genius and icon." Miksanek concluded that the book "will strike a chord with anyone interested in music, medical history, medical mystery, and the connection between creativity and disease. Bravo!"



Booklist, March 15, 2007, Alan Hirsch, review of Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven, p. 12.

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 20, 2007, Tony Miksanek, review of Diagnosing Genius, p. 2643.

Library Journal, April 1, 2007, Barry Zaslow, review of Diagnosing Genius, p. 94.