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Ludwig van Beethoven’s Genome Has Been Sequenced

Beethoven's bust.
Credit: Maria Lupan on Unsplash.
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An international team of scientists has sequenced DNA from five locks of Beethoven’s hair that were collected in the last seven years of his life. The research, published in Current Biology, offers new insights into the renowned German composer’s health difficulties and ancestry.

A musical genius plagued by health difficulties

Ludwig van Beethoven, born in Germany in December 1770, is one of the most prolific and admired composers of the Western classical tradition. During his lifetime he produced 722 pieces of work, including 9 symphonies, 35 sonatas and 16 string quartets. It’s an impressive feat for any composer no doubt, but Beethoven’s musical output is perhaps even more remarkable considering that he suffered a variety of ailments and was functionally deaf by 1818.

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The composer is alleged to have experienced “wretched” gastrointestinal issues from his early years, which progressed throughout his life. In 1821 he suffered an attack of jaundice, and cirrhosis – scarring of the liver due to long-term damage – has been presumed the most likely cause of his death.

In 1802, Beethoven requested that his physician Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt (1759–1809) describe his illness and publish the record after his death so that it could be publicly accessed. While Beethoven ultimately outlived his doctor, his letters, diaries and “conversation” books have been extensively studied by medical biographers in an effort to understand the cause of his health problems.

Now, an international research team, including scientists at the University of Cambridge, the Beethoven Center San José and American Beethoven Society, among others, has conducted the first genetic analysis of Beethoven, using samples of the composer’s hair. The team, led by Professor Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, utilized advances in ancient DNA sequencing to probe the composer’s genetic profile and determine whether there were any genetic contributions to his ailments.

Authenticating the hair samples

Krause and colleagues first analyzed eight hair samples that had been obtained from both public and private collectors. Of these eight samples, at least two were deemed to have originated from individuals other than Beethoven. This included the “Hiller” lock, a piece of hair alleged to have been cut from Beethoven’s head by the musician Ferdinand Hiller.

Disproving that this sample belonged to Beethoven is an important aspect of the study, as previous analyses of the hair sparked hypotheses that the composer suffered from lead poisoning. “Since we now know that the ‘Hiller lock’ came from a woman and not Beethoven, none of the earlier analyses based solely on that lock apply to Beethoven. Future studies to test for lead, opiates, and mercury must be based on authenticated samples,” says William Meredith, a scholar who is serving as chair of The Beethoven Genome Project and served as the founding director of The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University from 1985 through 2016. Meredith has been involved in previous research conducted on Beethoven’s remains and initiated the present study.

A lock of hair that was once thought to be from Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Hiller Lock, which the study found did not come from Beethoven but a woman, with inscription by former owner Paul Hiller. Credit: Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University. Photo by William Meredith.

The five samples authenticated as Beethoven’s hair originated from The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven, a private collector and the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. The composer’s whole genome was sequenced from the best-preserved sample – from the private collector – named the “Stumpff Lock”. From this sample, the team identified a strong DNA connection with living people in present-day Germany, a discovery consistent with Beethoven’s known ancestry.

What killed Beethoven?

A genetic risk for liver disease was detected from the hair samples, in addition to evidence of hepatitis B infection occurring in the composer’s later years. “We can surmise from Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes being consumed,” says Tristan Begg, a student at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead author.

“While most of his contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver. If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis,” he adds.

Analysis of the hair samples did not offer a definitive cause for Beethoven’s hearing issues. However, Dr. Axel Schmidt from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn, a co-author on the paper explains: “Although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven’s hearing loss could not be identified, the scientists caution that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out. Reference data, which are mandatory to interpret individual genomes, are steadily improving. It is therefore possible that Beethoven’s genome will reveal hints for the cause of his hearing loss in the future.”

The composer’s gastrointestinal difficulties could not be explained by genetics either, the researchers say, but the genome data does suggest that celiac disease and lactose intolerance can likely be ruled out.

So, what killed Beethoven? The available data does not pinpoint a single cause, but rather suggests his death may have been the result of numerous health issues working in tandem. “We cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk, and an infection with hepatitis B virus,” Krause explains.

“Taken in view of the known medical history, it is highly likely that it was some combination of these three factors, including his alcohol consumption, acting in concert, but future research will have to clarify the extent to which each factor was involved,” Begg concludes.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Cambridge. Material has been edited for length and content.

Reference: Begg T, Schmidt A, Kocher A et al. Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven. Current Biology. 2023. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.02.041.