Scripps News Life

Actions

Beethoven’s DNA reveals clues to his health issues before his death

Beethoven’s DNA reveals clues to his health issues before his death
Posted at 10:35 AM, Mar 23, 2023

The exact cause of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death has remained a mystery for centuries. While the specific cause of death has remained unconfirmed for some time, what’s certain is that the composer had gone completely deaf by the time he reached 45 years old. Recently, researchers attempted to uncover the root causes of Beethoven’s hearing loss and stomach issues by extracting DNA from strands of his hair almost 200 years after his passing.

While the study failed to uncover the root cause of his deafness, their testing revealed that the composer had a genetic predisposition to liver disease and was also infected with hepatitis B. These conditions likely severely damaged his liver in the last days of his life.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that these factors, combined with his excessive alcohol consumption, were likely responsible for Beethoven’s liver failure, which was the cause of his death. Interestingly, the composer had expressed the desire for medical professionals to examine his health issues after his demise. This March 26 will mark the 196th year since Beethoven’s death in Vienna at age 56.

Cell

This groundbreaking discovery was made possible thanks to the dedication of Beethoven fans, who saved locks of his hair after his death and kept them preserved for nearly 200 years. The strands of hair were then used to reconstruct about two-thirds of his genome, which allowed researchers to uncover essential details about his life and death.

In addition to these findings, the study yielded an unexpected revelation: DNA samples obtained from five male living relatives of Beethoven produced inconsistent results in the Y chromosomes inherited through the paternal line. While the men’s Y chromosomes matched each other, they did not match Beethoven’s Y chromosome. This suggests the possibility of an “extra-pair paternity event” in a previous generation of the composer’s family, pointing to the existence of a child born from an extramarital affair.

Original locks of Beethoven's hair
AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Despite these revelations, the main question surrounding what contributed to Beethoven’s deafness remains unanswered.

“Honestly, I think we just have to be grateful for what we got,” team leader Tristan Begg at the University of Cambridge told the Washington Post.

This story originally appeared on Simplemost. Check out Simplemost for additional stories.