Scientists Uncover Beethoven’s ‘Genetic Risk Factors’ From Lock Of His Hair: Study

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Font Size:

Nearly 200 years after the death of famed German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, a group of international scientists have discovered the musician was predisposed to ailments by examining a lock of what experts believe to be his hair, according to a study published Wednesday in Current Biology.

Famously hard of hearing, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers in 1802 describing how his condition forced him to “live like an exile.” In the letter, Beethoven charged his brothers to describe his ailments to a Dr. Schmid upon his death in hopes “the world may be reconciled to [him] after [his] death.”

In addition to his hearing loss, Beethoven suffered from recurrent abdominal pain that afflicted him with alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, according to medical journal The Lancet. His abdominal pain was apparently so severe at times that Beethoven admitted to regularly consuming alcohol to “kill the pain,” only to find later in life that the drinking “exacerbated” his symptoms, the journal continued.

Using the composer’s hair, a group of international scientists sequenced Beethoven’s DNA in an attempt to discover the root cause of his ailments, answering the musician’s request from over two hundred years ago, The Washington Post reported.

While the scientists could not determine a cause for his hearing loss, they found “genetic risk factors” within Beethoven’s DNA sequence for liver disease, revealing the composer showed signs of a hepatitis B infection which might have contributed to his documented cirrhosis, The Washington Post reported.

Historians have disagreed as to what exactly killed Beethoven, with some researchers believing it was lead poisoning. However, the scientists’ recent DNA analysis concluded that, given the composer’s heightened genetic risk, alcohol consumption, and hepatitis B, liver disease was likely the culprit behind his death, according to the study.

By comparing the composer’s DNA to that of his living relatives, scientists also discovered that one of Beethoven’s female ancestors had a child with an unknown man. Despite being linked together through a common relative in the 16th century named Aert van Beethoven, Beethoven’s Y chromosomes did not match those of his modern-day descendants. This revelation has led researchers to believe Beethoven was descended from the offspring of that unknown earlier coupling, The Washington Post reported. (RELATED: ‘My Mind Is Blown’: Famous Actress Julia Roberts Takes DNA Test, Discovers She’s Been Living A Lie Her Entire Life)

“Zeroing in on one extraordinarily famous individual — it feels a little bit like time travel,” Robert C. Green, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who was not involved in the research, told The Washington Post. “It isn’t so much the specific questions they answered as the fact that they ruled a few things out, searched for others, and made some truly original findings.”