Ludwig van Beethoven shared his health problems with the world towards the end of his life, but despite this, exactly why he died remains a mystery. Now, new research has shed some light as to what might have contributed to his demise after sequencing his entire genome from a lock of hair.
The German composer died on March 26, 1827, which you might think would make it difficult to do much in the way of genetic analysis. Fortunately, researchers had eight hair samples to work from allegedly left behind by a man famous for his shaggy locks.
In fact, only five of these were considered to be authentic, but they were enough to sequence Beethoven’s genome to high coverage. Doing so revealed some clues as to what may have contributed to his failing health in the last few years of his life.
“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 Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in a statement.
“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems. However, we did discover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease," Krause 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.”
The study may also have revealed an extramarital “event” in the family history of the van Beethovens, as it was discovered that Ludwig’s Y chromosome doesn’t match that of his known modern-day relatives. The finding indicates that an affair may have occurred in his paternal line somewhere between him and the earlier conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium in 1572.
The findings would appear to shut down earlier suggestions that Beethoven succumbed to hereditary conditions, or that he died from lead poisoning as was assumed from a hair sample that turned out to belong to a female. The latter may have merit, but hasn’t yet been tested for in authenticated hair samples.
This latest research concludes that the combination of his enthusiastic alcohol consumption with his genetic predisposition to liver disease, and a confirmed hepatitis B infection point to severe liver problems as a likely cause of his death.
So, sorry for your ills, Ludwig van Beethoven. We’ll always have Für Elise.
The study was published in Current Biology.