DNA From Beethoven’s Hair Reveals Clues About His Death
The composer was predisposed to liver disease and had hepatitis B at the end of his life, a new study finds
During his lifetime, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven reportedly suffered from a slew of health problems, including hearing loss, gastrointestinal issues and liver disease. He died in 1827 at the age of 56, most likely due to the problems with his liver.
The cause of his hearing loss, in particular, mystified Beethoven. It began in his mid- to late 20s and ended his performing career about two decades later. He wrote a letter requesting that his condition be studied by experts.
Now, scientists have taken the closest look yet at the composer’s health by analyzing DNA extracted from preserved locks of his hair, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.
The team sequenced two-thirds of Beethoven’s genome and examined it for clues on what might have led to his illnesses. They found that he was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had hepatitis B, at least in the months leading up to his death.
“I love this paper. Zeroing in on one extraordinarily famous individual—it feels a little bit like time travel,” Robert C. Green, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who did not contribute to the research, tells the Washington Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson. “It isn’t so much the specific questions they answered as the fact that they ruled a few things out, searched for others, and made some truly original findings.”
Several of Beethoven’s friends kept locks of his hair, which was common practice at that time. The researchers extracted DNA from eight preserved locks thought to have come from the composer’s head. Other research projects had unsuccessfully tried to extract genetic material from Beethoven’s remains, but recent advances in sequencing DNA from very old samples made this new attempt possible, writes Nature News’ Dyani Lewis.
“The procurement of the sample material alone is admirable,” Christian Reiter, a forensic medical specialist at the Medical University of Vienna who did not participate in the research, tells the publication.
One of the locks did not yield enough DNA to study, and another proved to be inauthentic. One seemed to come from a woman of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. But five had DNA that matched, indicating they came from the same person of European descent—and they had damage patterns one would expect in samples from the time of Beethoven’s death. This evidence suggests that they were truly from the composer.
“The fact that they have so many independent locks of hair, with different histories, that all match one another is compelling evidence that this is bona fide DNA from Beethoven,” Ed Green, an ancient DNA expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who did not participate in the research, tells the New York Times’ Gina Kolata.
From the hair samples, the researchers didn’t find any genetic evidence explaining Beethoven’s hearing loss or gastrointestinal problems. They could not explain the severe abdominal pain he suffered as an adult or his “prolonged bouts of diarrhea,” per the paper.
They did, however, find evidence to suggest a few explanations could be nearly ruled out: It was highly unlikely that the gastrointestinal issues were caused by lactose intolerance or celiac disease and not likely that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was to blame.
Among the several risk factors for liver disease found in Beethoven’s DNA, researchers identified one genetic variant that would have tripled his risk, writes Science News’ Freda Kreier. Historical accounts say the composer was a heavy drinker, which would have made him more vulnerable to liver disease. And the new finding that he had hepatitis B, which can cause liver damage, adds to the evidence.
“We see a very significant risk factor for liver disease, particularly in interaction with other factors; alcoholism is a big one, hepatitis B as well,” Tristan Begg, a co-author of the study and a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge in England, tells Genelle Weule of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Still, the team could not name a cause of death with certainty, and they were unable to determine when or how he was infected with the hepatitis B virus. They note in the paper that the quality of the old samples and the fact that genetic causes of diseases are not fully understood limited their analysis.
But they did make another discovery: The researchers compared Beethoven’s DNA to that of people living today who share a 16th-century ancestor with the composer, per the Washington Post. Their Y chromosomes didn’t match, suggesting one of Beethoven’s direct ancestors had a child outside of marriage, per the publication.
“This is a fascinating detective story,” Ian Gilmore, an expert at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital in England who was not involved with the research, tells Science News.