Beethoven's hair locks help scientists explain his untimely death

Through DNA analysis

Scientists used an unprecedented technique to try to understand the premature death of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most influential composers of classical music, who died almost two centuries ago in Vienna, aged 56.

DNA analysis from locks of hair sought to obtain more information about the German composer's untimely death on March 26, 1827.

The study, published this Wednesday in the scientific journal Current Biology, revealed strong genetic predispositions to liver disease, as well as infection by the hepatitis B virus at the end of life, two factors that probably contributed to his death, certainly from cirrhosis, aggravated by alcohol consumption.

However, researchers were unable to explain the cause of his progressive deafness, which caused so much suffering to the author of the 9th symphony.

In 1802, the composer had expressed his wish, in a letter to his brothers written in a moment of despair, that his illness would be described after his death and made public.

“We sought to fulfill this wish”, said Tristan Begg, researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, during a press conference.

Although the mystery still persists around some of the many pathologies from which Beethoven suffered, the scientists were “very lucky (…) to obtain such fascinating results”, stressed Begg, who is at the origin of this project started in 2014.

Until now, investigations into Beethoven's health were based mainly on his correspondence, his diary, his doctors' notes or even the autopsy report.

This time, the scientists analyzed eight locks of hair presented as belonging to Beethoven and coming from public or private collections.

The investigation made it possible to determine that five of these locks of hair were from the same male individual, with alterations dating back to the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

These five pieces of hair, which span the last seven years of Beethoven's life, are almost certainly authentic, according to investigators.

Three others, on the other hand, were disqualified, including one that had been used to support the hypothesis of death by lead poisoning, but which actually belonged to a woman.

The DNA sequencing took place in Germany, in the laboratory of the Max-Plank Institute of Anthropology in Leipzig, where prehistoric humans are usually studied.

Unlike bone analysis, "in hair, the DNA is very degraded", explained Johannes Krause, head of the department of genetics at this institute and co-author of the study.

“It was difficult to harvest enough DNA to assemble the genome,” he explained.

Several meters of hair were used and, finally, three quarters of the genome (all the genes of a living being) could be mapped.

Beethoven, who had at least two episodes of jaundice, the first of which was in 1821, had "a considerable genetic predisposition" to liver disease, the study concluded.

It also revealed that Beethoven had a hepatitis B virus infection, at least during the last few months of his life, but that it could have been earlier. However, a chronic infection is one of the main causes of cirrhosis, and Beethoven was known to be a heavy drinker.

“We therefore believe that your illness comes from an interaction” between these three factors, explained Markus Nöthen, also a co-author of the study.

On the other hand, the investigators could not issue a definitive conclusion for the composer's intestinal problems, lactose intolerance being excluded, nor especially for his deafness, which may have been caused by otosclerosis or Paget's disease.

To conclude the work, the scientists compared Beethoven's DNA with that of five Belgians who shared with the composer a distant relative who lived in the XNUMXth century, Aert van Beethoven.

To their surprise, the Y chromosome of these five men does not match the musician's.

According to investigators, the only possible explanation is an extramarital affair, somewhere between the seven generations that separate this common ancestor and Beethoven's birth in Bonn in 1770.