Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was arguably the world’s first rock star. His sensational compositions electrified audiences. Like many other musical geniuses, his life was also fraught with a lot of unanswered questions. Thanks to new DNA analysis, historians might be closer to getting some answers.
A paper published in Current Biology looked at locks of the pianist’s hair, which have survived through history in the hands of private collectors. The hope was that genetic analysis might provide some clues about the composer’s health struggles. Famously, Beethoven suffered from hearing loss that grew worse later in life, though no diagnosis of what caused the loss was ever made in his lifetime. (Childhood infections with typhus or smallpox are possibilities, though never proven.) Beethoven tried a number of home remedies, including almond oil and leeches, to little avail. He also developed gastrointestinal problems as well as liver disease, the latter of which may have contributed to his death at age 56.
Using five hair samples confirmed to be from Beethoven, scientists examined his DNA for possible disease markers. A total of 10 feet of hair was examined. They discovered Beethoven had genetic risk factors for liver disease as well as a hepatitis B infection, both of which were likely factors in his demise. (Beethoven was said to be a heavy drinker, as well.)
Nothing was found that could explain his hearing loss, which led to his being functionally Deaf by age 48. Nor was there any indication of what could have caused his complaints of stomach issues, though lactose intolerance and celiac disease were ruled out.
Researchers also discovered that Beethoven’s DNA was an incomplete match for his known living relatives in Belgium. This could be the result of an extramarital affair on Beethoven’s father’s side of the family.
Before his death, Beethoven pleaded with his family to have doctors try to determine the cause of his health issues. Further analysis of his genome and additional creditable hair samples could one day lead to more answers.