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Ludwig von Beethoven’s DNA reveals he probably died of liver damage

Genetic analysis of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair has revealed that the composer had a high genetic risk for liver disease, which could have contributed to his death. It has also overturned a previous idea about him having had lead poisoning, but uncovered no explanation for why he lost his hearing.

Tristan Begg at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have analysed the DNA of eight locks of hair purported to come from Beethoven’s head to see if it could explain the composer’s health issues.

Beethoven, born in 1770, started losing his hearing in his mid-20s, as he started to grow in fame. He was almost completely deaf by his mid-40s and experienced severe gastrointestinal issues during his life. He died in 1827, aged 56. A post-mortem examination at the time revealed that he had severe liver damage.

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The researchers’ first task was making sure the hair actually came from Beethoven. Locks of hair were a typical memento in the Victorian era, says Begg, and there are dozens of locks purported to be Beethoven’s around the world.

They therefore 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’ll tend to see the accumulation of damage patterns,” says Begg. “You want to see these patterns consistent with the documented age of the samples.”

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Then they compared the DNA of the eight locks. The combination of these methods led them to conclude that five of them were from Beethoven. “I think we are able to authenticate these five locks of hair with great confidence,” says Begg.

Examining the DNA data, the researchers found that the composer 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 would have increased the likelihood that he developed the condition. Begg says this finding, combined with the autopsy report, suggests that cirrhosis of the liver, caused by liver disease, could have led to Beethoven’s death.

The team also found evidence that Beethoven had a hepatitis B infection in the best-preserved lock of hair, which is likely to have been cut off near the end of his life. This virus can also cause liver damage.

But the researchers found no genetic factor linked to the composer’s gastrointestinal problems or deafness. Begg isn’t surprised when it comes to the latter. “Late-onset forms of hearing loss are rarely caused by a single gene,” he says.

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“This kind of genetic study of a famous individual is fascinating,” says Layla Renshaw at Kingston University, UK, and it satisfies a similar curiosity to reading their letters or diaries.

Previous attempts to sequence Beethoven’s DNA from hair samples suggested he had lead poisoning, but this study reveals that the earlier work was done on hair from a woman. “Given this background, there is a good case ethically for using genetic analysis to dispel previous misconceptions or speculation,” says Renshaw.

Journal reference

Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.02.041

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