SPOTLIGHT

Genetic analysis of Beethoven’s hair sheds light on his death 

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 2 MINS READ

Ludwig van Beethoven, a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Ludwig van Beethoven, a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820. | Photo Credit: Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

His health and cause of death have been the subject of debate since 1802.

An international team of scientists has uncovered important information about the health of the well-known composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The work also poses new questions about his recent ancestry and cause of death. It was published in a recent issue of Current Biology.

His health and cause of death have been debated since 1802 when he asked his doctor to describe his illness. But that debate did not have the benefit of genetic research.

In the present study, the scientists sequenced Beethoven’s genome using five genetically matching locks of his hair. By combining genetic data with closely examined provenance histories, researchers concluded that these locks were “almost certainly authentic”.

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Among Beethoven’s health problems were progressive hearing loss, leading to him becoming functionally deaf by 1818. The team also investigated possible genetic causes of his chronic gastrointestinal complaints and a severe liver disease, most likely cirrhosis, that culminated in his death in 1827, at the age of 56.

The authenticated hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin for Beethoven’s hearing loss or gastrointestinal complaints, but the researchers did discover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. They also found evidence of hepatitis B infection in the last months of his life.

The scientists were from the University of Cambridge; the Beethoven Centre San Jose and the American Beethoven Society; KU Leuven; FamilyTreeDNA; the University Hospital Bonn and the University of Bonn; the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn; and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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The lead author Tristan Begg, from the University of Cambridge, said: “We can surmise from Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes consumed. While most of his contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver. If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis.”

The research team also suggested that Beethoven’s hepatitis B infection might have driven the composer’s severe liver disease, exacerbated by his alcohol intake and genetic risk.

However, scientists cautioned that the nature and timing of this infection could not currently be determined and that the true extent of his alcohol consumption remained unknown. 

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