In 1802, with his first two symphonies and three piano concertos completed, Ludwig van Beethoven asked his brothers to advise their physician, Johann Adam Schmidt. He wanted, after his own death, for the doctor to publicly describe his illness and his progressive hearing loss so that “as far as possible, the world will be reconciled to me”. Now, more than two centuries later, an international team of researchers is at least partially fulfilling the wishes of the great German composer.
Scientists have deciphered the musician’s genome from five locks of his hair, previously identified as authentic. The study, published this Wednesday in the journal ‘Current Biology’, shows that the controversial hypothesis that Beethoven died of lead poisoning after medical treatment for pneumonia is not supported and points to other possible reasons: his predisposition to liver disease and a hepatitis B infection that, combined with his alcohol consumption, may have led to cirrhosis and death at age 56 in 1827. The study, however, does not clarify the causes of his famous deafness or his gastrointestinal problems.
The main aim of the research, led by the University of Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, among other scientific centres, is to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems. To do this, the team performed authentication tests on eight hair samples acquired from public and private collections in the UK, continental Europe and the US. As they did so, they realized that at least two of the wicks were not Beethoven’s. having his head cut off shortly after his death by 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller.
Earlier analyzes of this lock by Hiller suggested that Beethoven was suffering from lead poisoning caused by a medical treatment to cure pneumonia. This poisoning may have played a role in his health problems, including his hearing loss. But that curl belonged to a woman, not the musician, so any results from it must be ruled out. Future studies to detect lead, opiates or mercury, remind the authors, must be carried out in samples identified as authentic.
The five confirmed hair samples, all from the last seven years of the musician’s life, showed a range of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease and evidence of infection with the hepatitis B virus in the months before the composer’s last illness. “If you’ve been drinking heavily over a long period of time, the interaction with your genetic risk factors presents a possible explanation for your cirrhosis,” says Tristan Begg of Cambridge.
The team also suggests that the hepatitis B infection may have led to the composer’s severe liver disease, exacerbated by alcohol use and genetic risk. However, the nature and timing of this infection cannot be determined at this time. The true extent of his alcohol consumption is also not known, which was considered “moderate” by early 19th-century Viennese standards by his contemporaries, but may well have been a liver-damaging amount.
As for the hearing loss, the investigation did not reveal any genetic origin, although it is not excluded that it could be in the future. It also proved impossible to find a genetic explanation for the genius’ gastrointestinal complaints, but the researchers argue that celiac disease and lactose intolerance are highly unlikely. Interestingly, Beethoven was found to have some degree of genetic protection against the risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), making this a less likely explanation.
“We cannot definitively say what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant hereditary risk and infection with the hepatitis B virus,” said Johannes Krause of Max Planck. “We can also rule out other less plausible genetic causes,” he adds.
“Given the known medical history, it is highly likely that it was a combination of these three factors, including alcohol intake, acting together, but future research will need to clarify the extent to which each factor is involved,” adds Begg.
As is often the case when people analyze DNA, the researchers discovered another surprise. The team analyzed the genetics of living relatives in Belgium, but found no match between any of them. Some share paternal ancestry with Beethoven in the late 16th and early 17th centuries according to genealogical studies, but they do not match on the Y chromosome. Researchers believe this is due to at least one extramarital ‘slip’ in the direct patrilineal line of Beethoven.
The study suggests that this event occurred between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium in c.1572, and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven seven generations later in 1770, in Bonn, Germany. Although the question of the paternity of Beethoven’s father has been raised previously due to the absence of a baptismal record, researchers have been unable to determine the generation in which this event occurred.
As Begg notes, “We hope that by making Beethoven’s genome publicly available to researchers, and perhaps adding more authenticated strands to the initial time series, lingering questions about his health and genealogy may one day be answered.”