Analysis of Beethoven's hair reveals cause of death and an extramarital affair
Before composer Ludwig van Beethoven died on March 27, 1827, it was his wish that his illnesses be told and studied so that the world could benefit from it.
Researchers have taken steps to partially comply with this requirement by analyzing Beethoven's DNA from preserved hair.
A study details the findings and is published in the journal Current Biology.
"Our main goal was to shed light on Beethoven's health problems, which included progressive hearing loss beginning in his mid-to-late 20s and eventually leading to total deafness by 1818." , the researchers said.
The five hair samples helped scientists uncover insights into his family history, chronic health problems and what may have contributed to his death at the age of 56.
Illnesses of Beethoven
In addition to hearing loss, the famous classical composer had recurring gastrointestinal complaints throughout his life, as well as severe liver disease.
Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers in 1802 requesting that his physician, Johann Adam Schmidt, determine and share the nature of his 'disease' after Beethoven died. The letter is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.
Since his death, questions have swirled about what ailed Beethoven and his true cause of death. Within the last seven years of his life, the composer experienced at least two bouts of jaundice, which is associated with liver disease, leading to the general belief that he died of cirrhosis.
The team began by analyzing a total of eight hair samples from public and private collections across the UK, Europe and the US. During their work they discovered that two did not come from Beethoven at all, while another was too damaged to be analyzed.
Earlier work suggesting that Beethoven had lead poisoning was determined to be based on a hair sample that did not belong to him - one that instead belonged to a woman.
Letters written by Beethoven, as well as those of his friends, show that the composer regularly consumed alcohol. Although it is difficult to say how much he drank, a close friend wrote that Beethoven drank at least a liter of wine at lunch every day.
Drinking alcohol, combined with genetic risk factors for liver disease and his hepatitis B infection, may have been the perfect storm for Beethoven's health near the end of his life.
A secret in DNA
After the research team established Beethoven's genetic profile, they compared it to the DNA of his living relatives in Belgium. But at one point, they were unable to determine a complete match.
Whereas with some of Beethoven's relatives on his side of the family in the late 1500s and early 1600s, he had no Y-chromosome matches in the hair samples.
This shows that somewhere in the history of the family, there was an extramarital affair on the part of Beethoven's father and as a result a child was born.
Scholars believe the affair occurred sometime between the 1572 conception of Hendrik van Beethoven, a paternal ancestor of Beethoven seven generations removed from the composer, and Beethoven's conception in 1770.