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DNA From Beethoven’s Hair Offers Clues on Composer’s Ailments

photo of beethoven

March 23, 2023 – Nearly 200 years after his death, researchers continue to try to grant a dying wish of composer Ludwig Van Beethoven to study his health problems. Progressive hearing loss beginning in his early 20s left him deaf at his time of death, and he complained of chronic stomach problems.

A DNA analysis of the composer’s hair indicates he had a genetic predisposition to liver disease and had a hepatitis B infection, which attacks the liver, in his last months of life. Those findings, combined with Beethoven’s reported alcohol use, all point to serious liver problems that have long been considered his most likely cause of death at age 56.

“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,” University of Cambridge researcher and PhD student Tristan Begg said in a statement. “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,” Begg said.

The findings were published in the Wednesday edition of Current Biology. Researchers genetically sequenced five locks of hair attributed to Beethoven from his last 7 years of life. When the musical genius died at age 56, he left a letter asking that doctors study his health problems after he died. This weekend marks the anniversary of his death in 1827 in Vienna, Austria.

The researchers did not find an answer for his complaints of gastrointestinal problems, nor did they find the cause of his deafness. They did rule out celiac disease and lactose intolerance. 

An additional finding was an anomaly in his DNA from his father’s side that suggested an extramarital affair occurred in his family tree, but the researchers could not determine the generation in which it took place.

To conduct the analysis, the researchers used nearly 10 feet of Beethoven’s hair, The Associated Press reported.

The hair for the study was provided by several sources: a private American collector named Kevin Brown, by the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, CA, and by the Beethoven-Haus Museum in Bonn, Germany. 

Show Sources


University of Bonn: “Beethoven’s genome offers clues to composer’s health and family history.”

Current Biology: “Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven.”

The Associated Press: “What made Beethoven sick? DNA from his hair offers clues.”

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