(The Herald Post) – Researchers have uncovered new information about the possible cause of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death in 1827 by analyzing DNA from the composer’s hair. The findings, published in Current Biology, reveal that Beethoven carried several genetic risk factors for liver disease, which, combined with other factors, could have led to his premature death at the age of 56.
Beethoven’s health had been a constant struggle throughout his life. Besides his progressive hearing loss, which left him completely deaf by the age of 45, the composer also suffered from gastrointestinal issues and a deteriorating liver. The latter is thought to be responsible for his skin turning yellow in the summer of 1821. The root cause of his health problems has long been a subject of fascination and speculation.
Tristan Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, led a team of researchers in an effort to reconstruct Beethoven’s genome by analyzing DNA from several locks of the composer’s hair that had been preserved by collectors and descendants of those who had received the hair in the 19th century. Five locks of hair from various sources were confirmed to belong to a single individual with central European ancestry, which Beethoven would have had.
The genome analysis did not reveal any genetic markers for deafness or intestinal issues. However, it did identify several risk factors for liver disease, including a variant of the gene PNPLA3 that would have tripled Beethoven’s risk of developing liver issues in his lifetime. The researchers also found traces of the hepatitis B virus in one strand of hair reportedly collected shortly after Beethoven’s death, which could have further damaged his liver.
These risk factors, combined with the composer’s alleged heavy drinking in the later years of his life, may have led to the liver failure that many historians believe was the cause of Beethoven’s death. While the exact combination of factors responsible for his demise remains uncertain, the study provides a fascinating insight into the composer’s health.
An intriguing side note to the study is the finding that the Y chromosome in the five hair samples does not match those of five people who share a 14th-century ancestor with Beethoven. Begg suggests that this could be a sign of the hair’s inauthenticity or, more likely, that one of Beethoven’s direct paternal ancestors had a child outside of marriage between the 14th and 16th centuries.