Beethoven's DNA offers clues to how he died

Locks of hair could explain demise of celebrated composer

Beethoven's genome showed the German composer was genetically predisposed to liver disease. AP
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Five locks of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven's remains offer fascinating DNA clues as to how he died.

Beethoven, one of classical music’s undisputed masters, died at 56 after suffering progressive hearing loss and chronic illness.

With the 196th anniversary of the German composer’s death coming up on Sunday, an international team of scientists think they have some of the answers.

His genome showed he was both genetically predisposed to liver disease and had the hepatitis B virus, said the study published on Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.

His autopsy in 1827 in Vienna determined he had cirrhosis of the liver. The new findings suggest there were multiple factors behind his liver disease including genetics, viral infection and alcohol consumption.

“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 co-author Markus Nothen of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn.

Beethoven, he said, had “a strong genetic disposition to liver disease” and sequences of hepatitis B were detected in his hair.

Locks of Beethoven's hair were tested. AP

Unfortunately, they have not so far been able to uncover the reasons for his famous deafness or his severe stomach illnesses.

“With Beethoven in particular, it is the case that illnesses sometimes very much limited his creative work,” said study author Axel Schmidt, a geneticist at University Hospital Bonn in Germany. “And for physicians, it has always been a mystery what was really behind it.”

The composer himself wrote that he wanted doctors to study his health problems after he died.

With advances in ancient DNA technology, researchers have been able to pull genetic clues from locks of Beethoven’s hair. AP

Since his death, scientists have tried to piece together Beethoven's medical history and have offered a variety of possible explanations for his many maladies.

Now, with advances in ancient DNA technology, researchers have been able to pull genetic clues from locks of Beethoven’s hair that had been snipped off and preserved as keepsakes.

They focused on five locks that are “almost certainly authentic,” coming from the same European male, according to the study report.

Dr Axel Schmidt, co author of the study, shows the genome of the composer. AP

After cleaning Beethoven's hair one strand at a time, scientists dissolved the pieces into a solution and fished out chunks of DNA, said study author Tristan James Alexander Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge.

Getting genes out was a challenge because DNA in hair gets chopped up into tiny fragments, said author Johannes Krause, a paleogeneticist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Researchers did not find any clear genetic signs of what caused Beethoven’s gastrointestinal problems, but they ruled that celiac disease and lactose intolerance were unlikely causes.

In the future, the genome may offer more clues as we learn more about how genes influence health, Prof Begg said.

Updated: March 23, 2023, 10:47 AM