Genetic analysis of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair has revealed that the composer had a high genetic risk for liver disease, which may have contributed to his death. It has also overturned the previous idea that he had lead poisoning, but no explanation has been given as to why he lost his hearing.
Tristan Begg He and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge have analyzed the DNA of eight locks of hair that came from Beethoven’s head to see if it could explain the composer’s health issues.
Beethoven, born in 1770, began losing his hearing in his mid-20s as he began to rise in fame. He was almost completely deaf by his mid-40s and experienced severe gastrointestinal issues during his life. He died in 1827 at the age of 56. A post-mortem examination at that time revealed severe liver damage.
The researchers’ first task was to make sure the hair really came from Beethoven. Locks of hair were a typical memento in the Victorian era, says Begg, and there are dozens of locks of Beethoven around the world.
So they examined the paperwork for each lock and used DNA analysis to determine the age of the samples. “For DNA samples from the last few centuries, you will see an accumulation of damage patterns,” Begg says. “You want to see these patterns correspond to the documented age of the specimens.”
They then compared the DNA of the eight locks. The combination of these methods led him to conclude that five of them were from Beethoven. “I think we’ve been able to authenticate these five locks of hair with great confidence,” Begg says.
Examining DNA data, researchers found that the musician had a high genetic risk for liver disease. Begg says this risk would be relatively benign for most people, but Beethoven’s reportedly high alcohol consumption may have increased his chances of developing the condition. Begg states that this finding, combined with the autopsy report, suggests that liver disease, liver cirrhosis, may have been the cause of Beethoven’s death.
The team also found evidence that Beethoven had a hepatitis B infection in his best-preserved lock of hair, which is likely to have been cut off near the end of his life. This virus can also damage the liver.
But the researchers found no genetic factors linked to the musician’s gastrointestinal problems or deafness. When it comes to the latter, Begg isn’t surprised. “Late-onset forms of hearing loss are rarely caused by a single gene,” he says.
“This kind of genetic study of a famous person is fascinating,” says Layla Renshaw at Kingston University, UK, and it satisfies a similar curiosity to read his letters or diaries.
Previous attempts to sequence Beethoven’s DNA from hair samples suggested he had lead poisoning, but this study suggests that earlier work on the hair was done by a woman. “Given this background, there is an ethically good case to be made for using genetic analysis to dispel previous misconceptions or speculation,” says Renshaw.