WORLD NEWS

DNA analysis of Beethoven’s hair reveals health issues, family secret

Mar 26, 2023, 5:33 PM

Samples of Beethoven's hair allowed researchers to sequence the composer's DNA.
(Ira F. Brilliant C...

Samples of Beethoven's hair allowed researchers to sequence the composer's DNA. (Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University)

(Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University)

(CNN) — Before composer Ludwig van Beethoven died on March 27, 1827, it was his wish that his ailments be studied and shared so “as far as possible at least the world will be reconciled to me after my death.”

Now, researchers have taken steps to partially honor that request by analyzing Beethoven’s DNA from preserved locks of his hair and sequencing the composer’s genome for the first time.

A study detailing the findings published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.

“Our primary goal was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which famously include progressive hearing loss, beginning in his mid- to late-20s and eventually leading to him being functionally deaf by 1818,” said study coauthor Johannes Krause, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in a statement.

The five hair samples helped scientists discover insights about family history, chronic health problems and what might have contributed to his death at the age of 56.

Beethoven’s maladies

In addition to hearing loss, the famed classical composer had recurring gastrointestinal complaints throughout his life, as well as severe liver disease.

Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers in 1802 asking that his doctor, Johann Adam Schmidt, determine and share the nature of his “illness” once Beethoven died. The letter is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.

But Beethoven outlived his favorite doctor by 18 years, and after the composer died, the testament was discovered in a hidden compartment in his writing desk. In the letter, Beethoven admitted how hopeless he felt as a music composer struggling with hearing loss, but his work kept him from taking his own life. He said he didn’t want to leave ”before I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose.”

Since his death, questions have swirled around what ailed Beethoven and his true cause of death. Within the last seven years of his life, the composer experienced at least two attacks of jaundice, which is associated with liver disease, leading to the general belief that he died from cirrhosis.

Medical biographers have since combed through Beethoven’s letters and diaries, as well as his autopsy, notes from his physicians, and even notes taken when his body was exhumed twice in 1863 and 1888, with the hopes of piecing together his complicated medical history.

But the researchers behind the new study took things a step further about eight years ago when they set out to do a genetic analysis of Beethoven’s hair. The samples they used included hair cut from his head in the seven years prior to his death.

Genetic revelations

The team started by analyzing a total of eight hair samples from public and private collections across the UK, Europe and the US. During their authentication work, they discovered that two didn’t come from Beethoven at all, while another was too damaged to analyze.

Previous work suggesting that Beethoven had lead poisoning was determined to be based on a hair sample that didn’t belong to him — one that instead had belonged to a woman.

But five of the samples all came from the same European male and matched his German ancestry. Beethoven had hand delivered one of the locks himself to the pianist Anton Halm in April 1826, saying “Das sind meine Haare!” (“That is my hair!”)

The genetic analysis spotted clues hiding in the composer’s DNA that could add context to his health issues.

“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems,” Krause said.

“However, we did discover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease,” he added. “We also found evidence of an infection with hepatitis B virus in at latest the months before the composer’s final illness. Those likely contributed to his death.”

Beethoven’s genetic data also helped the researchers rule out other potential causes of his ailments, such as celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, lactose intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome.

Letters written by Beethoven, as well as those of his friends, show that the composer regularly consumed alcohol. Although it’s difficult to tell how much he drank, a close friend wrote that Beethoven had at least a liter of wine with lunch each day.

Drinking alcohol, combined with genetic risk factors for liver disease and his hepatitis B infection, might have been the perfect storm for Beethoven’s health near the end of his life.

“If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis,” said lead study author Tristan Begg, Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge.

But the researchers cautioned that the timing of all of these events was critical to understanding what contributed to Beethoven’s death. Future research could reveal more insights — including the reason behind his hearing loss, the authors said.

“We hope that by making Beethoven’s genome publicly available for researchers, and perhaps adding further authenticated locks to the initial chronological series, remaining questions about his health and genealogy can someday be answered,” Begg said.

A secret in the DNA

Once the research team established Beethoven’s genetic profile, they compared it with the DNA of his living relatives in Belgium. But in a twist, they weren’t able to determine a complete match.

While some of the relatives shared a paternal ancestor through Beethoven’s family in the late 1500s and early 1600s, there was no match for the Y-chromosome in Beethoven’s hair samples.

This suggests that somewhere in the family’s history, there was an extramarital affair on Beethoven’s father’s side that resulted in a child.

“Through the combination of DNA data and archival documents, we were able to observe a discrepancy between Ludwig van Beethoven’s legal and biological genealogy,” said study coauthor Maarten Larmuseau, a genetic genealogist at the KU Leuven in Belgium.

The researchers think the affair occurred sometime between the 1572 conception of Hendrik van Beethoven, an ancestor in the paternal Beethoven line seven generations removed from the composer, and the conception of Beethoven in 1770.


The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

World News

This undated photo taken by Colombia's Anthropology and History Institute shows sunken remains from...

Heather Chen and Michael Rios, CNN

Colombia launches expedition to explore 300-year-old Spanish shipwreck filled with sunken treasure

Colombia has launched an underwater expedition to explore a Spanish warship that sank in the Caribbean 300 years ago.

5 hours ago

Security forces stand around a stage that collapsed due to a gust of wind during an event attended ...

Michael Rios, Mia Alberti and Fidel Gutierrez and Ivana Kottasová

9 dead, 54 injured as wind causes stage collapse at Mexico election rally

Nine people were killed and a presidential candidate was briefly taken to hospital after a stage collapsed under heavy winds at a campaign rally in Mexico on Wednesday.

11 hours ago

Estonia's capital of Tallinn is seen from a British Chinook helicopter on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. ...

Emma Burrows, Associated Press

Russia is waging a shadow war on the West that needs a collective response, Estonian leader says

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says Russia is conducting a "shadow war" against the West. As the war in Ukraine takes a turn in Russia's favor, borders are being bolstered in the front-line Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as in Finland and Poland.

2 days ago

Workers started erecting the eight feet tall black screen on May 21. (Kyodo News/Getty Images via C...

Lilit Marcus, CNN

Japanese town overrun with tourists puts up view-blocking barrier near Mount Fuji

The Japanese town of Fujikawaguchiko has erected a giant black net to block views of Mount Fuji, a reaction to the town’s huge popularity on Instagram and other social media platforms.

2 days ago

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 26: Democratic Republic of Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi attends talks wi...

Jessica Donati, Hannah Schoenbaum and Michael Biesecker, Associated Press

Congo names third American in a foiled coup plot as mourners gather in Utah to remember plot leader

Congo’s army spokesman has released the name of the third American involved a foiled coup plot in Kinshasa.

2 days ago

Israeli army tanks are seen in the central Gaza Strip on May 18. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP via CNN News...

Alex Marquardt and Jeremy Diamond, CNN

Egypt changed terms of Gaza ceasefire deal presented to Hamas, surprising negotiators, sources say

Egyptian intelligence quietly changed the terms of a ceasefire proposal that Israel had already signed off on earlier this month, ultimately scuttling a deal that could have released Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

DNA analysis of Beethoven’s hair reveals health issues, family secret