It is surprising that centuries ago, in times when access to education was practically restricted to the elites and pedagogy lacked the qualitative specialization developed today, child prodigies emerged with some frequency. In this sense, the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, gave birth to some very famous ones, with Mozart being the archetype of all of them. There was another, however, who could have wrestled away the indisputability of that protagonism, and if he did not, it was simply because he did not have time, as he died in early childhood. His name was Christian Heinrich Heineken, and he entered history with a life of only four years and four months.

It is difficult to establish how much of strict truth there is in his case and how much is exaggeration, even if it were partial. The fact is that Christian’s nickname as the Child Prodigy of Lübeck was not gratuitous, and the reason is quite well documented. So, if his merits may have been hyperbolized by chroniclers, it is also true that they had a certain basis. Furthermore, it should be noted that one of the testimonies that have come to us about the virtues of the boy is signed by none other than Immanuel Kant, the celebrated philosopher, who wrote an essay about him calling him ‘ingenium praecox,’ which does not need to be translated.

As can be easily deduced, he was a native of Lübeck, a city in the current German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which at that time had declined after the dissolution of the Hanseatic League in 1669, but in 1721, the year of Christian’s birth, it still remained a port of some importance. The child did not become brilliant by chance. His father, Paul, was an artist, a profession that at that time encompassed various modalities, and he specifically focused on architecture and painting, having had Mengs as a disciple. But it was also the case that his mother did not fit the profile of a traditional woman of her time: her name was Catharina Elisabeth, the daughter of the painter Franz Oesterreich and, when she was orphaned, she was adopted by another painter named Karl Krieg.

Carl Heinrich von Heineken/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

With parents like that, it seemed inevitable that their offspring would excel above normal, and in fact, Christian had an older brother, Carl Heinrich, who was fourteen years his senior. Carl studied literature and law at the universities of Leipzig and Halle, worked as a private tutor for the poet Johann Ulrich König and later for Count Alexander von Sulkowsky, then became secretary to another count, Von Brühl, before being appointed by the King of Poland, Augustus III, as director of the royal collection of engravings and drawings and publishing several books on art in various languages. He would live a long life (dying in 1791), in contrast to his younger brother.

His curriculum vitae began very early, at ten months, when he learned to speak. German, obviously, a language in which he was reportedly able to read the Pentateuch two months later, in an incredible display of speed in understanding letters, syllables, and syntax in general.

Apparently, he possessed an extraordinary capacity that extended to Latin and French when he reached the age of two, thanks to a prodigious memory that allowed him to memorize entire passages from the Bible word for word and recite them without error, as he did with fragments of texts from scientific disciplines such as mathematics, geography, history, philosophy…

The child in an engraving by Johann Balthasar Probst | Image public domain on Wikimedia Commons

To the undeniable educational influence of his parents – Paul was not only an architect but also a consummate chemist who made his own paints and enamels, while his mother, in addition to painting and doing floral arrangements, was a scholar of alchemy – was added that of his teacher, Christian von Schönaich, who came from a noble family and decided to present the child’s skills to society. This was how Christian had the opportunity to recite before Frederick IV, King of Denmark, who had heard of him and wanted to meet him in person, a text he had written himself for the occasion entitled The Old, Wise and New Danish History. He later performed for enthusiastic audiences in various European countries. All of this in a year that no one suspected would be his last.

The story of the Child Prodigy of Lübeck tragically ended on July 27, 1725. Upon returning from Copenhagen, he began to feel unwell and in the following months his condition worsened, to the point that he himself became aware of his grave illness and reportedly faced it with considerable composure. No one could find a way to make him better, because it was an illness that would not be fully identified until two and a quarter centuries later, when the Dutch pediatrician Willem Karel Dicke realized that the shortage of wheat caused by World War II led to a drastic reduction in deaths of children with a certain intestinal condition, and that rates increased again after the war. We’re talking about celiac disease, caused by an intolerance to gluten found in wheat, oats, and rye along with their derivatives.

Christian, according to the custom of his time, did not stop breastfeeding as he grew up. At least not exactly, since Sophie Hildebrandt, his wet nurse, prepared porridge for him with extracted milk. And it turns out that Sophie had a diet rich in cereals, loaded with gluten. That unfortunate child prodigy had a posthumous tribute from his teacher, the aforementioned von Schönaich, who published a biography of him titled Leben, Thaten, Reisen und Tod eines sehr klugen und artigen 4jährigen Kindes Christian Henrich Heineken aus Lübeck (Life, deeds, travels, and death of the very clever and well-behaved 4-year-old child Christian Henrich Heineken from Lübeck). The light that shines twice as bright lasts half as long.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 8, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Christian Heinrich Heineken, el niño prodigio que impresionaba a Europa con sólo cuatro años


Il bambino prodigio di Lubecca. La vita straordinaria di Cristiano Enrico Heinecken (Guido Guerzoni)/A history of american gifted education (Jennifer L. Holly)/Mental prodigies (Fred Barlow)/Wikipedia.

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