What DNA Taken From Beethoven’s Hair Reveals About His Death

What are the causes of the death of the famous German composer Beethoven? Lead poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver… Medical biographers have proposed numerous hypotheses, including many essentially hereditary diseases. This is why researchers carried out a genetic analysis on strands of Beethoven’s hair.

The German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) remains one of the most influential and popular artists in classical music. His progressive hearing loss is well known today but it was not when he was alive. Beethoven wished to keep this secret until his death, when the disease began in his mid to late twenties and rendered him completely deaf in 1818.

What we know about his condition

Beethoven suffered from various health problems of which medical biographers have tried to determine the most probable causes. The research was mainly based on documentary sources, in particular the composer’s letters and diaries, as well as doctors’ notes, a report fromautopsyautopsy and descriptions of skeletal material.

Beethoven’s hearing loss manifested itself early in the disease as tinnitus and loss of high frequencies. He also suffered from debilitating abdominal disorders since the age of 22, characterized by abdominal pain and severe attacks of diarrheadiarrhea. The German pianist presented towards the end of his life symptomssymptoms of liver disease. Several elements indicating a regular consumption of moderate to large quantities of alcohol have moreover led certain medical biographers to conclude that Beethoven was dependent on it, which is a risk factorrisk factor known to cirrhosiscirrhosis liver — believed by some to be the cause of his death.

Namely that earlier analyzes suggesting that Beethoven suffered from poisoning with leadlead turned out to be based on a sample that wasn’t his at all, but was from a woman.

What the study tells us

More than two centuries later, researchers have carried out genetic analysis from strands of the composer’s hair, in order to elucidate the potential underlying genetic and infectious causes of his illnesses.

« We haven’t been able to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal issues.says Johannes Krause of the Institute Max PlanckMax Planck of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. However, we have discovered a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. We also found evidence of infection with the virusvirus of the’Hepatitis BHepatitis B at the latest in the months preceding the composer’s last illness. These elements probably contributed to his death ».

Eight locks of hair attributed to Ludwig van Beethoven were the subject of genomic analysis, five of which came from a single European man. They considered that these samples must be authentic and sequenced Beethoven’s genome using new methods of whole genome analysis.

L’ADNADN extracted from Beethoven’s hair is genetically closest to that of the inhabitants of present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, which corresponds to the artist’s known German ancestry. Future studies may help pinpoint the period of his hepatitis B infection.

Beethoven poisoned with lead by his doctor?

Article of Jean-Luc GoudetJean-Luc Goudetpublished on September 3, 2007

But the doctor didn’t do it on purpose… It was the analysis of the great composer’s hair, taken shortly after his death, which made it possible to understand that the medical treatment he was undergoing undoubtedly finished him off. …

It was as a result of liver problems that Ludwig van Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. For four months, he had suffered from severe intestinal edema which had led his doctor, Andreas Wawruch, to perform four puncturespunctures to extract the internal effusion, the largest having evacuated 17 liters… However, for several years, studies had shown that Beethoven had been the victim of lead poisoning. What illness did the great German composer take away?

To clarify the matter, Dr. Christian Reiter, head of the department of forensic medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, was interested in two hairs from locks cut by relatives on the body of Beethoven, just after his death. . However, a hair incorporates at its root some of the constituents of blood. His work and conclusions have just been published in the Beethoven Journal and in the magazine Science.

Fatal bandages

By spectroscopy, Christian Reiter detected four very high peaks of lead corresponding to the dates of the punctures of Doctor Wawruch (who subsequently published a detailed report of the care he provided to the musician). This coincidence is easily explained. To disinfect the wound caused by the needle, the doctor applied a dressing coated with lead salt, a common technique at the time.

Doctor Reiter specifies that this exposure to lead would not have killed a healthy man but it was undoubtedly fatal to Beethoven, very weakened by his disease (perhaps cirrhosis of the liver).

Previous studies suggesting lead poisoning, also detectable in the skeleton, indicate that this metalmetalwithout knowing how, entered the life (and the body) of Beethoven long before the bandages of Doctor Wawruch, a well-known doctor, renowned cellist and great admirer of the composer.

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