Locks of hair from German composer Ludwig van Beethoven have yielded new clues about his health issues and ancestry, DNA analysis shows.
Beethoven, who died in March 26, 1827, at the age of 56, was functionally deaf by his mid-40s. That has never been in dispute. However, a study published on Wednesday shows that DNA found in Beethoven’s hair has shattered some long-held beliefs about his health, The New York Times reported.
The journal Current Biology explores the composer’s ailments and even his death.
“I love this paper. Zeroing in on one extraordinarily famous individual -- it feels a little bit like time travel,” Robert C. Green, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who was not involved in the research, told The Washington Post. “It isn’t so much the specific questions they answered as the fact that they ruled a few things out, searched for others, and made some truly original findings.”
In an analysis of strands of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair published Wednesday, researchers debunked myths about the composer while raising new questions about his life and death. https://t.co/x14IOlcR24 pic.twitter.com/r20KQplmnC— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 22, 2023
One of the findings in the paper was that one famous lock of Beethoven’s hair, which was the subject of a book and a documentary, was not his, the Times reported. It belonged to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman.
The rumor that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning was also debunked, along with the belief that he was Black, according to the newspaper.
In addition, a Flemish family in Belgium who shares the composer’s last name and said they were related, have no genetic ties to Beethoven, the study revealed.
It was “a very serious and well-executed study,” Andaine Seguin-Orlando, an expert in ancient DNA at France’s University Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, who also is not involved in the research, told the Times.
The researchers did not find a genetic cause for Beethoven’s deafness or stomach pain, but did discover genetic risk for liver disease and evidence of hepatitis B infection, which can lead to cirrhosis, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“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,” study co-author Johannes Krause, who is a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in a statement, according to CNN.
Friends and admirers of Beethoven famously kept locks of his hair as mementos, but researchers set out to prove that the locks of hair belonged to the composer.
For example, in 1826, the wife of a colleague asked Beethoven asked for a lock of his hair, but the composer and his secretary instead snipped off a piece of a goat’s beard that was similar in texture and color, the Post reported.
When Beethoven learned of the woman’s humiliation, he sent a lock of his hair that is currently known as the Halm-Thayer lock, according to the newspaper. It was one of the samples that the researchers studied.
After cleaning Beethoven’s hair one strand at a time, scientists dissolved the pieces into a solution and extracted chunks of DNA, study author Tristan James Alexander Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, told The Associated Press.
Of the eight locks of hair studied by the researchers, five were authenticated through DNA as belonging to Beethoven, the study showed. They came from the same European males and matched the composer’s German ancestry, CNN reported. That helped the study’s authors determine why Beethoven had certain health issues.
“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems,” Krause told the news outlet. “However, we did discover several significant genetic risk factors for liver disease.
“We also found evidence of an infection with hepatitis B virus in at (the) latest the months before the composer’s final illness. Those likely contributed to his death.”
Hepatitis B is spread through sex and shared needles and during childbirth, according to the Times. Beethoven did not use intravenous drugs, William Meredith, a Beethoven scholar, told the newspaper. He never married and details of his sex life remain murky.
Study co-author Arthur Kocher, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute, said that Beethoven could have been infected with hepatitis B during childbirth, the Times reported. The virus is commonly spread this way, he said, which can infect a person throughout their lifetime.
Researchers were unable to find any risk signals for hearing loss or his gastrointestinal illnesses, according to the Post.
“The whole complex story is astonishing to me,” Meredith told the Times. “And I’ve been part of it since 1994. One finding just leads to another unexpected finding.”
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