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Beethoven’s Hair Reveals Cause of Death Centuries Later

Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler 1820
A genetic study on Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair revealed the cause of his death. Credit: Public Domain

A recent analysis on Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair locks revealed new insights into the health issues that plagued the famous composer throughout his lifetime. The study, titled “Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven,” was published in Current Biology on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Beethoven’s Request for Medical Investigation

After the death of Beethoven on March 26, 1827, a number of scholars and medical specialists investigated the source of the composer’s hearing loss. This was something the composer had requested in writing many years before.

Originally he wanted his favorite doctor, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, to divulge his health issues to the world. However, Dr. Adam Schmidt passed away before Beethoven did.

Testing and Results of the Research

Tristan Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, and the primary investigator of the project, examined eight strands of hair that are believed to have belonged to Beethoven in the hopes of elucidating probable underlying genetic and viral causes of the composer’s diseases.

Although it was well known that Beethoven started losing his hearing in his 20s, and that by the middle of his 40s he was functionally deaf, the research shed light on other health problems that he suffered from.

According to the research, out of the eight strands of hair that were analyzed, five of them were determined to have “perfect genetic matches” and were judged to be “almost certainly authentic.”

It was discovered by researchers that Beethoven had a hereditary susceptibility to liver disease, which was one of the factors believed to have led to the composer’s death. Specifically, the tests indicated that Beethoven was infected with hepatitis B in the months leading up to his death.

Possible Causes of Beethoven’s Severe Liver Disease

Experts came to the conclusion that Beethoven’s genetic predisposition and high alcohol intake offered “plausible explanations” for his severe liver condition, which eventually led to his death.

Unexpected Result

An unexpected finding was made by the researchers while they were conducting the study. A comparison of the Y chromosomes of five living members of the Van Beethoven patrilineage with the DNA extracted from Beethoven’s hair revealed a discrepancy in Beethoven’s paternal ancestry.

It occurred several generations before the composer was born. This evidence points to the possibility of an extra pair event having occurred in his paternal line.

Debunking Previous Findings

A forensic analysis completed in 2007, which concluded that lead poisoning might have hastened Beethoven’s death, was refuted by the new research as well. It was discovered that the hair analyzed in that research over 16 years ago was not Beethoven’s. Rather, the hair came from an unknown female.

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