DNA from Beethoven's Hair Provides Clues to His Health Problems and How He Died

“[Beethoven's] illnesses sometimes very much limited his creative work, and for physicians, it has always been a mystery what was really behind it,” said one of the researchers who examined the locks

Julia Ronge, Head of Collection at Beethoven Haus in Bonn, Germany, shows the original locks of Ludwig van Beethoven, that were used to sequence the genome of the world famous composer by an international team of researchers led by Cambridge University, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Scientists have pulled Beethoven's genome from locks of his hair to look for clues about his many health problems.
Photo: Martin Meissner/AP Photo

Strands of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven have revealed what may have led to the classical music composer's death.

A study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology found that the great musician had a "genetic predisposition for liver disease" after sampling Beethoven's hair for DNA sequencing. That, coupled with his alcohol consumption, could have been what led him to have severe liver disease later on in his life, which ultimately resulted in his death at the age of 56 on March 26, 1827.

Researchers also found that he had a hepatitis B infection in the months prior to his death, which may have also been a contributing factor to his demise.

"With Beethoven in particular, it is the case that illnesses sometimes very much limited his creative work, and for physicians, it has always been a mystery what was really behind it," one of the study's authors and University Hospital Bonn in Germany geneticist Axel Schmidt told the Associated Press.

This undated image shows the Stumpff Lock of hair from German composer Ludwig van Beethoven in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Jena, Germany. - Beethoven died in Vienna nearly 200 years ago after a lifetime of composing some of the most influential works in classical music. Ever since, biographers have sought to explain the causes of the German composer's death at the age of 56, his progressive hearing loss and his well-documented struggles with chronic illness. A team of researchers who sequenced Beethoven's genome using locks of the German composer's hair may now have some answers. Liver failure, or cirrhosis, was the possible cause of Beethoven's death brought about by a number of factors, including the composer's alcohol consumption, they said.
ANTHI TILIAKOU/Max Planck Institute for the Sci/AFP via Getty

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However, despite being able to find explanations for some of Beethoven's ailments, the study noted that the DNA found in his hair did not provide an explanation for his hearing loss or gastrointestinal problems.

Ohio State University's Dr. Avraham Z. Cooper, who was not involved in the study, told the AP that figuring out these symptoms of Beethoven may be difficult as genetics is only one part of "nature and nurture," and what he did daily also played a role in his health.

However, Cooper told the AP that "the fact that we can't know is OK" — noting the mystery behind Beethoven is part of his draw.

An original lock of world famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven placed in a gift box, that was a popular collectible in the 19th century, is seen at the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, Germany, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. An international team of researchers led by Cambridge University have pulled Beethoven's genome from locks of his hair to look for clues about his many health problems.
Martin Meissner/AP Photo

According to the study, researchers collected eight strands of hairs from Beethoven obtained from private and public collections that were dated from between November 1821 and his death in March 1827. They then narrowed down the locks of hair to five samples, which they believed to be "almost certainly authentic."

Another of the study's authors Tristan James Alexander Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, told the AP that once they had the strands they knew were Beethoven's, they had to individually clean each strand of Beethoven's hair so they could dissolve the pieces into a solution to pick up the DNA.

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They ended up using almost 10 feet of Beethoven's hair in order to pick up enough DNA to piece together the genetic material to check for signs of a genetic disease.

Begg told the AP that the study also revealed that some of the DNA found in Beethoven and in his extended family did not match up directly which meant that there may have been a child born before Beethoven from an extramarital relationship in his family tree.

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