New research published in the journal Current Biology uses DNA sequencing to uncover that the great composer did not die from lead poisoning after all...
In 1802, at the age of just 32, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers requesting that a post-mortem autopsy be performed on him to find the cause of his malady – his increasing deafness.
By the time the German musical genius passed away at age 56 in 1827, he was completely deaf and suffered from liver cirrhosis amongst other chronic diseases. These were the findings of the requested autopsy and the limited science of that time.
Since then, scientists and music historians have long grappled with the cause of Beethoven’s deafness – and his death. And now, two centuries later, a team of researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology have partially fulfilled Beethoven's last wish in writing by analysing DNA pieced together from locks of his hair.
The conclusions of their research point towards several new findings, including Hepatitis B and an extramarital affair along Beethoven’s paternal lineage.
The great mystery behind Beethoven’s death
“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 - quoted in the press release from Current Biology.
Despite his hearing impairment, Beethoven produced 722 works, including 9 symphonies, 35 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets over the course of his life. He continued to produce music even as he gradually lost his hearing and became completely deaf by age 40. Some of his greatest works – the 7th, 8th, and 9th symphonies – were composed in the later years of his life whilst battling abdominal cramps, digestive issues, chronic bronchitis, and muscle weakness. He died in Vienna on 27 March 1827 after a spell of pneumonia which aggravated his existent maladies.
For the longest time, all his symptoms pointed modern scientists toward lead poisoning, which was however debunked in 2010, when researchers uncovered that a small piece of Beethoven’s skull had no more lead than the average person’s cranium.
The new research published today (22 March) uncovered a different cause of death altogether.
The team led by researchers from Cambridge University independently sourced eight locks of hair attributed to Beethoven, five of which were deemed authentic and were then used to sequence Beethoven’s genome. The team relied on recent improvements in DNA analysis that have made whole-genome sequencing possible even from small quantities of historically preserved follicles.
The researchers noted that the DNA extracted from Beethoven’s hair is genetically similar to that of the inhabitants of present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, which matches the known facts about Beethoven’s German ancestry.
“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems,” said Krause. “However, we did discover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. We also found evidence of an infection with Hepatitis B virus in at least the months before the composer’s final illness. Those likely contributed to his death,” Krause adds.
A surprise for the researchers
Whilst sequencing Beethoven’s genome to uncover the cause of his death, the researchers were met with a surprise – as is often common in DNA studies.
It turns out that Beethoven’s Y chromosome doesn’t match any of the five modern-day relatives who carry the same last name and share a common ancestor with Beethoven’s paternal line as per genealogical records. This points towards an extramarital affair somewhere along the generations on Beethoven’s paternal side.
“This finding suggests an extrapair paternity event in his paternal line 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,” says Tristan Begg, another researcher who is now at the University of Cambridge, UK.
The research team also noted how “this dataset additionally permits numerous future lines of scientific inquiry” such as when and how Beethoven contracted Hepatitis B and how he is related to his modern-day descendants.
However, the world of science has yet to fully fulfil Beethoven’s last wish to uncover the cause of his deafness. But they're making progress and the composer's request still hasn't fallen on deaf (scientific) ears.