The research was conducted by the University of Cambridge, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, the American Beethoven Society, KU Leuven, FamilyTreeDna, Bonn University Hospital and the University of Bonn, Beethoven -Haus in Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
It wasn’t lead poisoning that shut down the talent of Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, December 16, 1770 – Vienna, March 26, 1827). A study reveals that the causes of his death at the age of 56 are to be found in quite another place. According to the team of researchers, who published the analysis of the composer and musician’s DNA on Current Biologythere are chronic gastrointestinal disorders, caused by can celiac disease ehlactose intolerance, linked to genetic risk factors for liver disease, severe liver disease culminating in cirrhosis, linked to his frequent alcohol consumption, and hepatitis B which he allegedly contracted in the last months of his life, which was the cause of his death. The scientists analyzed five strands of hair – all dating back to the last seven years of Beethoven’s life – and coming from a single individual who corresponds to the documented ancestry of the great musician of the Eroica and the Ode to Joy.
The lead author of the study is Tristan Begg, researcher of biological anthropology of the Department of Archeology of theUniversity of Cambridge. The research, conducted by the University of Cambridge, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, theAmerican Beethoven SocietyKU Leuven, FamilyTreeDna, University Hospital Bonn and the University of Bonn, Beethoven-Haus Bonn and theMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has discovered important information on the composer’s health and raises new questions about his ancestry and the cause of his death. The analysis showed that the The composer’s Y chromosome does not match that of any of his five current descendantswho share a common paternal ancestor with him: this indicates that at least one extramarital conception must have occurred sometime during the next seven generations after the birth of the common ancestor, Hendrik van Beethoven in 1572.
The main objective of the study was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which famously included progressive hearing loss, which began in his 20s and 30s and eventually led to him being functionally deaf in 1818. The team he also investigated the possible genetic causes of Beethoven’s chronic gastrointestinal disorders and severe liver disease that culminated in his death. The research team also suggests that Beethoven’s hepatitis B infection may have triggered the severe liver disease of the composer, exacerbated by alcohol intake and genetic risk. However, the scientists caution that the nature and timing of this infection, which would have greatly affected Beethoven’s liver disease relationship, could not be determined at present, and likewise caution that the true extent of his alcohol consumption remains unknown.
Beethoven’s hearing loss has been linked to several potential causes, including diseases with varying degrees of genetic contribution. Investigations of authenticated hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin of the hearing loss. In total, the team of researchers conducted authentication tests on eight hair samples acquired from public and private collections in the UK, continental Europe and the US. In doing so, the researchers discovered that at least two of the strands were not from Beethoven, including a famous strand believed to have been cut off the composer’s head by 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller. Previous analyzes of Hiller’s lock supported the hypothesis that Beethoven had been poisoned by lead, a possible factor in his health problems, including hearing loss. William Meredith, who was part of the team involved in the previous scientific analyzes of Beethoven’s remains and initiated the new study together with Tristan Begg, said: “Because we now know that the ‘Hiller lock’ comes from a woman and not from Beethoven , none of the above analyzes based solely on that lock apply to Beethoven. THE future studies to check for the presence of lead, opiates and mercury will have to be based on authentic samples“.
The five specimens identified as authentic and from the same person belong to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, California, to a private collector, Kevin Brown, a member of the American Beethoven Society, and to the Beethoven-Haus of Bonn. Beethoven hand-delivered one of the locks (now in Brown’s collection) to the pianist Anton Halm in April 1826 by telling him “Das sind meine Haare!” (“This is my hair!”). Beethoven’s entire genome was sequenced from another sample of Brown, the “Stumpff Lock”, which turned out to be the best preserved. The team found the strongest link between DNA extracted from Stumpff’s hair and people living in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia, consistent with Beethoven’s known German ancestry. The team analyzed the genetics of five men now living in Belgium who share the surname Beethoven. These men have been found to share all have the same Y chromosome. This, when combined with genealogical studies, implies that these men share a common ancestor in the male line, in one Aert van Beethoven (1535-1609). The Y chromosome found in Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair samples, however, is very different. The team concluded that this is likely the result of at least one ‘extraparental paternity event’ – a child born of an extramarital affair – in Beethoven’s direct paternal line.
Genetic genealogist Maarten Larmuseau of KU Leuven said: “Through the combination of DNA data and archival documents, we were able to observe a discrepancy between the legal and biological genealogy of Ludwig van Beethoven.” The study suggests that this event occurred in the direct paternal line between Hendrik van Beethoven’s conception in Kampenhout, Belgium, circa 1572, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s conception seven generations later, in 1770, in Bonn, Germany. Although doubts had previously been raised about the paternity of Beethoven’s father due to the absence of a baptismal record, researchers have not been able to determine the generation in which this event took place. Tristan Begg commented: “We hope that by making Beethoven’s genome publicly available to researchers, and perhaps adding more authenticated hair strands to the initial time series, the remaining questions about his health and genealogy may one day be answered“.
Beginning in the Bonn years, the composer suffered from “miserable” gastrointestinal problems, which continued and worsened in Vienna. In the summer of 1821, Beethoven had the first of at least two attacks of jaundice, a symptom of liver disease. Cirrhosis has long been considered the most likely cause of his death. The team of scientists could not find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems. However, they did uncover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. They also found evidence of a hepatitis B virus infection that allegedly occurred in the months leading up to the composer’s death. Professor Tristan Begg said: “From Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used in the last decade of his life, we can assume that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes consumed. Although most of his contemporaries maintain that his consumption was moderate by early 19th-century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and it is probable that this consumption amounted to quantities of alcohol known today as harmful to the liver. If his drinking has been heavy enough over a long enough period of time, interaction with his genetic risk factors is a possible explanation for his cirrhosis.”
Axel Schmidt from the Institute of Human Genetics at University Hospital Bonn said: ‘While it has not been possible to identify a clear genetic basis for Beethoven’s hearing loss, we caution that such a scenario cannot be rigorously excluded. The reference data, which are required to interpret individual genomes, are constantly improving. It is therefore possible that Beethoven’s genome will reveal clues to the cause of his hearing loss in the future.” A genetic explanation for Beethoven’s gastrointestinal distress could not be found, but researchers argue that celiac disease and lactose intolerance are highly unlikely based on the genomic data. Beethoven was also found to have some degree of genetic protection against the risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), often suspected as a cause, making this explanation less likely.
“We can’t say for sure what killed Beethoven, but now we can at least confirm the presence of a significant hereditary risk and hepatitis B virus infection,” said Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. “We can also eliminate several other less plausible genetic causes.” “In light of the known medical history, it is highly probable that it was a combination of these three factors, including alcohol consumption, acting in concert, but future research should clarify to what extent each factor was involved“, adds Tristan Begg. And again: Beethoven’s hearing loss has been linked to several potential causes, including diseases with varying degrees of genetic contribution. Investigations of authenticated hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin of the hearing loss. Axel Schmidt from the Institute of Human Genetics at University Hospital Bonn said: ‘While it has not been possible to identify a clear genetic basis for Beethoven’s hearing loss, we caution that such a scenario cannot be rigorously excluded. The reference data, which are required to interpret individual genomes, are constantly improving. It is therefore possible that Beethoven’s genome will reveal clues to the cause of his hearing loss in the future.”