Scientists Analyzed Beethoven's Hair to Learn What Killed Him, Once and For All
Researchers sequenced Beethoven's genome to better understand his underlying health conditions.
Just five locks of hair provided the basis for the research.
Liver disease helped contribute to his death in 1827.
Using genetics to prove what killed Ludwig van Beethoven may not have allowed a team of researchers from across multiple institutions to come to a revolutionary new conclusion, but it did help them find some interesting connections.
Beethoven died in 1827, with liver disease serving as a leading factor in his demise. In a new study led by Cambridge University and published in Current Biology, a team of researchers sequenced Beethoven's genome via locks of his hair to understand his health problems. These issues included progressive hearing loss, chronic gastrointestinal complaints, and severe liver disease.
The genetic research didn't offer any definitive explanations for the deafness or gastrointestinal problems, but it did highlight significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. The team also found evidence of a Hepatitis B infection present in the body in the months before the composer's death.
"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," Tristan Begg, the study's lead author and biological anthropology research students from the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge, says in a news release.
The team believes Beethoven's Hepatitis B infection could have been the driving force behind the composer's severe liver disease, which would then have been exacerbated by his alcohol intake and genetic risk. But certainty in both the timing of the infection and extent of alcohol consumption remains elusive.
The hearing loss is also a mystery. "Although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven's hearing loss could not be identified," Axel Schmidt of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Boon says in the news release, "we caution that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out."
Similarly, the team couldn’t find a genetic explanation for Beethoven's gastrointestinal issues, but did note that his genetics showed that both coeliac disease and lactose intolerance were highly unlikely. He also had a "certain degree of genetic protection against risk of irritable bowel syndrome," which has often been blamed for his complaints.
The team ended up ruling out three locks of hair previously ascribed to Beethoven as not his, including the "Hiller lock," which was found to be from a woman. That lock was linked to lead poisoning, which can now no longer be attributed to Beethoven's health demise.
The cause of death investigation offers more clarity, but not certainty. "We cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk, and an infection with Hepatitis B virus," Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, says in a news release. "We can also eliminate several other less plausible genetic causes."
Combining the genetic research with the known medical history of Beethoven, Begg says "it is highly likely that it was some combination of these three factors, including his alcohol consumption, acting in concert, but future research will have to clarify the extent to which each factor was involved."
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