Ludwig von Beethoven, a German composer, passed dead on a rainy Monday in March 1827 after a protracted illness. He had been bedridden since Christmas the year before, his limbs and abdomen distended from jaundice, and breathing was difficult.
As his friends set about cleaning through his personal effects, they came across a will that Beethoven had written more than 25 years previously, pleading with his brothers to inform the public of his illness.
It is now widely recognized that one of the greatest musicians in history became functionally deaf by the time he was in his mid-forties. Beethoven desired that everyone around the world were aware of this awful irony, both from a personal and a medical standpoint.
Nearly two centuries after Beethoven’s death, a team of academics set out to carry out his bequest in ways he would never have believed possible by genetically examining the DNA in verified samples of his hair. The composer would outlast his doctor by over two decades.
According to biochemist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, “our primary goal was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which famously include progressive hearing loss, beginning in his mid- to late-20s and ultimately leading to his being functionally deaf by 1818.”
Even his personal doctor, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, has never been able to pinpoint the root reason of that hearing loss. His 20s-onset tinnitus gradually gave way to diminished loud noise tolerance and subsequently loss of hearing in higher pitches, which effectively put an end to his performance career.
Nothing could be more ironic for a musician. Beethoven acknowledged being “hopelessly afflicted” and considering suicide in a letter to his brothers.
The composer had to deal with more than just hearing loss in his adult life. He is alleged to have experienced significant abdominal pain and recurrent diarrheal episodes starting at least at the age of 22.
The earliest symptoms of liver disease, which is believed to have contributed at least in part to his mortality at the comparatively young age of 56, first surfaced six years prior to his passing.
A forensic examination of a hair believed to be from Beethoven in 2007 revealed lead poisoning may have contributed to the symptoms that led to his death, if not actually caused it.
It’s not particularly surprising given the tradition of drinking from lead vessels and the use of lead in earlier medical procedures.
However, the most recent study, which was released in March of this year, disproves the notion by showing that the hair really originated from an unidentified woman rather than Beethoven in the first place.
The composer’s death was most likely caused by a hepatitis B infection, which was made worse by his drinking and several risk factors for liver disease, but more crucially, three locks that were confirmed as being much more likely to be from the composer’s cranium show this to be the case.
What are his other medical issues?
Beethoven’s deafness and digestive issues were both undetermined causes, according to Krause.
In some ways, the details surrounding the composer’s life and passing leave us with more unanswered questions. Where did he get hepatitis from? How did a woman’s hair strand pass for Beethoven’s for so many years? What precisely was the cause of his hearing loss and abdominal pain?
It’s a disappointing result given that the crew was motivated by Beethoven’s wish for the world to comprehend his hearing impairment. Nevertheless, his genes had one more pleasant surprise.
Further analysis reveals a discrepancy between the Y chromosomes in the hair samples and those of contemporary relatives descended from Beethoven’s paternal line. It appears that there was some extramarital hanky-panky in the generations before the composer was born.
According to Tristan Begg, a biological anthropologist currently working at the University of Cambridge in the UK, “this finding suggests an extrapair paternity event in his paternal line between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium in around 1572 and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, Germany, seven generations later.”
Given the fateful request he made in writing, it might all be more than a younger Beethoven anticipated. In the wake of that dismal stormy Monday night in 1827, as his friends and acquaintances clipped the hair from his body, he would never have imagined the secrets that were being saved.
This research was published in Current Biology.