Beethoven's Hair Uncovers Clues About The Composer's Health, Ancestry And Cause Of Death: Study
All the five locks of hair date from the last seven years of Beethoven's life. The study shows that the locks of hair originate from a single individual matching Beethoven's documented ancestry. A new study has revealed that genetic research has revealed clues to the health and cause of the death of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who passed away in 1827 after months of bedridden illness. The research, led by Tristan Begg from the University of Cambridge, uncovers important information about Beethven's health and his cause of death. It also found evidence of possible genetic causes of Beetoven's chronic gastrointestinal complaints, and a severe liver disease that culminated in his death. The study also revealed that all the five locks of hair originate from a single individual matching Beethove's documented ancestry. The authors noted that the true extent of his liver disease was exacerbated by his alcohol consumption and that some of the potential causes to be ruled out.
Published : 2 months ago by Radifah Kabir in Science
In 1827, Beethoven died, after months of bedridden illness. The health and cause of the death of the great composer have been a subject of debate. But, with the help of genetic research, scientists have found clues to his ancestry, health and his cause of death. ( Image Source : Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820/University of Cambridge )
An international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven's genome using five genetically matching locks of his hair. This marks the first time the famous composer's genome has been sequenced.
In the early 1800s, Beethoven's health began to deteriorate. In 1802, Beethoven asked his doctor to describe his illness after his death, and to make the record public. In 1827, Beethoven died, after months of bedridden illness. The health and cause of the death of the great composer have been a subject of debate. But, with the help of genetic research, scientists have found clues to his ancestry, health and his cause of death.
The study describing the findings was recently published in the journal Current Biology. The research, led by Tristan Begg from the University of Cambridge, uncovers important information about Beethoven's health, and poses new questions about his recent ancestry.
What health problems did Beethoven suffer from?
All the five locks of hair date from the last seven years of Beethoven's life. The study shows that all the five locks of hair originate from a single individual matching Beethoven's documented ancestry. The researchers combined genetic data with closely examined provenance histories, or the place of origin, and concluded that the five locks are "almost certainly authentic".
Beethoven's health problems famously included progressive hearing loss, beginning in his mid- to late-20s. His hearing loss eventually led to him being functionally dead by 1818. The primary aim of the study was to shed light on the composer's health problems.
The researchers also investigated possible genetic causes of Beethoven's chronic gastrointestinal complaints, and a severe liver disease that culminated in his death in 1827.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, a federal city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. While he was living in Bonn, he suffered from "wretched" gastrointestinal problems. These problems continued and worsened when he moved to Vienna.
Beethoven suffered the first of at least two attacks of jaundice, a symptom of liver disease, in the summer of 1821. Scientists and historians have long viewed cirrhosis as the most likely cause of his death at age 56.
Clues to Beethoven's health unveiled by the study
While the researchers were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven's deafness or gastrointestinal problems, they did discover a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease.
The researchers also found evidence of an infection with Hepatitis B virus that happened a few months before the composer's final illness, the study said.
In a statement released by the University of Cambridge, Begg said the researchers can surmise from Beethoven's 'conversation books', which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes being consumed. He also said that while most of Beethoven's contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver.
Begg explained that if Beethoven's alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis.
Beethoven's Hepatitis B infection might have driven the composer's severe liver disease, the researchers suggested. His liver disease was probably exacerbated by his alcohol intake and genetic risk.
The researchers noted that the nature and timing of the Hepatitis B infection could not currently be determined. The nature and timing of the infection is important because it would have greatly influenced its relationship with his liver disease. The authors also noted that the true extent of Beethoven's alcohol consumption remains unknown.
Some of the potential causes to which Beethoven's hearing loss has been linked include diseases with various degrees of genetic contributions. When the researchers investigated the authenticated hair samples, they could not find a simple genetic origin of the composer's hearing loss.
Alex Schmidt, one of the authors on the paper, said although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven's hearing loss could not be identified, the team cautions that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out.
He also said that reference data, which are mandatory to interpret individual genomes, are steadily improving, and hence, it is possible that Beethoven's genome will reveal hints for the cause of his hearing loss in the future.
The researchers found it impossible to find a genetic explanation for Beethoven's gastrointestinal complaints. However, the study authors argue that coeliac disease and lactose intolerance are highly unlikely based on the genomic data.
Moreover, the authors concluded that irritable bowel syndrome was a less likely explanation to his gastrointestinal problems, because the composer had a certain degree of genetic protection against the risk of irritable bowel syndrome.
Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, and one of the authors on the paper, said the researchers cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but they can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk, and an infection with Hepatitis B virus.
Krause said that several other less plausible genetic causes can be eliminated.
It is highly likely that Beethoven's death was caused by a combination of three factors: alcohol consumption, genetic risk factors for liver disease, and an infection with Hepatitis B virus. However, future research will have to clarify the extent to which each factor was involved, Beggs said.
The researchers conducted authentication tests in eight hair samples acquired from public and private collections in the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and the United States.
The authors discovered that at least two of the locks did not originate from Beethoven. One of the locks was once believed to have been cut from Beethoven's by the 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller. This lock is known as the 'Hiller lock'.
Previous studies which analysed the 'Hiller lock' suggested that Beethoven had lead poisoning, a possible factor in his health complaints, including his hearing loss.
However, William Meredith, who initiated the present study with Begg, said since the researchers now know that the 'Hiller lock' came from a woman and not Beethoven, none of the earlier analyses based solely on that lock apply to Beethoven.
Meredith also said that future studies to test for lead, opiates and Mercury must be based on authenticated samples.
The five hair locks identified as being authentic and from Beethoven belong to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, to a private collector named Kevin Brown, and to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, California.
In April 1826, Beethoven hand-delivered one of the locks to the pianist Anton Halm, telling him "Das sind meine Haare!", Which means "That is my hair!". That lock is now in Brown's collection.
The researchers sequenced Beethoven's whole genome from another of Brown's samples, called the 'Stumpff Lock'. This emerged as the best-preserved sample.
According to the study, the researchers found the strongest connection between the DNA extracted from the 'Stumpff Lock' of Beethoven's hair and people living in present-day North Rhine-Westphalia. This finding is consistent with Beethoven's known German ancestry.
The researchers analysed the genetics of five men now living in Belgium who share the surname Beethoven. According to the study, the men were all found to share the same Y-chromosome.
When the researchers combined this finding with genealogical studies, they concluded that the men share a common ancestor in the male line, in a person named Aert van Beethoven, who lived from 1535 to 1609.
However, the Y-chromosome found in the hair samples from Ludwig van Beethoven was quite different.
According to the researchers, this was likely to be the result of at least one "extra-pair paternity event", a scientific term for a child resulting from an extramarital relationship, in Beethoven's direct paternal line.
Maarten Larmuseau, one of the authors on the paper, said through the combination of DNA data and archival documents, the researchers were able to observe a discrepancy between Beethoven's legal and biological genealogy.
According to the study, the extra-pair paternity event occurred in the direct paternal line between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium, in 1572, and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven seven generations later in 1770, in Bonn, Germany.
Earlier, a doubt had been raised concerning the paternity of Beethoven's father due to the absence of a baptismal record. However, the researchers could not determine the generation during which the extra-pair paternity event took place.
Begg said the researchers hope that by making Beethoven's genome publicly available for researchers, and adding further authenticated locks to the initial chronological series, remaining questions about the composer's health and genealogy can someday be answered.