DNA analysis of Beethoven’s hair provides clues to his death
Ludwig van Beethoven died in Vienna about 200 years ago after a lifetime of composing some of the most influential works in classical music — and biographers have long struggled to explain his death.
The German composer died at the age of 56 after lengthy struggles with chronic illness and progressive hearing loss.
An international team of researchers who sequenced Beethoven’s genome using authenticated locks of his hair may now have some answers.
Liver failure, or cirrhosis, was the likely cause of Beethoven’s death, brought about by a number of factors, including alcohol consumption, they said.
“We looked at possible genetic causes of his three main symptom complexes — the progressive hearing loss, the gastrointestinal symptoms and the liver disease ultimately leading to his death due to liver failure,” said Markus Nothen of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn.
Beethoven, Mr Nothen said, had “a strong genetic disposition to liver disease” and sequences of the hepatitis B virus were detected in his hair.
“We believe the disease arose from an interplay of genetic disposition, well-documented chronic alcohol consumption and hepatitis B infection,” Mr Nothen said.
The authors of a study on Beethoven’s death, published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Wednesday, were unable to determine any genetic causes for the progressive hearing loss that eventually left the composer completely deaf by 1818.
The researchers analysed eight locks of hair said to be from Beethoven and determined that five of them were “almost certainly authentic”, said Tristan Begg, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study.
“Because we reconstructed the genome from ultra-short DNA fragments, we only confidently mapped about two thirds of it.”
Beethoven, who was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in 1827, battled gastrointestinal problems at various times of his life as well as jaundice.
“There were periods of acute illness where he was unable to work — for example, his month-long period of acute illness in the spring of 1825,” Mr Begg said.
The researchers, by studying Beethoven’s DNA data and archival documents, also uncovered a discrepancy in his legal and biological genealogy.
They found an “extra-pair paternity event” — which appears in children resulting from an extramarital relationship — in Beethoven’s direct paternal line, said Toomas Kivisild of the Institute of Genomics at the University of Tartu.
Mr Kivisild said it occurred sometime within seven generations that separate a common ancestor, Aert van Beethoven, at the end of the 16th century and Beethoven’s birth in 1770.
“You cannot rule out that Beethoven himself may have been illegitimate,” Mr Begg said.
Beethoven had asked in an 1802 letter to his brothers that his health problems, particularly his hearing loss, be described after his death.
“He had the wish to be studied postmortem,” Mr Krause said.
“And it is kind of, basically, his wish that we are fulfilling to some degree with this project.”