Ludwig von Beethoven, the German musician, died on a stormy Monday in March 1827, after a long sickness. He’d been bedridden since Christmas, beset by jaundice, his extremities and belly swollen, each respiration a fight.
As his friends went about sorting through personal belongings, they came across a document Beethoven had written a quarter-century earlier – a will pleading with his siblings to make specifics of his situation public.
It is no longer a secret that one of the world’s best artists was completely deaf by his mid-40s. It was a sad irony Beethoven hoped the world comprehended, not just from a personal standpoint, but also from a medical standpoint.
Nearly two centuries after Beethoven’s death, a team of researchers set out to fulfill his legacy in ways he would never have thought possible by genetically examining the DNA in verified samples of his hair. The composer would outlast his doctor by almost 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 particular specialist, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, does not know what caused his hearing loss. Tinnitus in his twenties gradually progressed to a decreased tolerance for harsh noise and, ultimately, a loss of hearing in higher frequencies, essentially terminating his career as a performing artist.
Nothing could be more absurd for an artist. Beethoven confessed in a message to his siblings that he was “hopelessly afflicted,” to the point of considering suicide.
The artist had to contend with more than just hearing loss as an adult. He is said to have suffered from extreme abdominal aches and persistent episodes of diarrhea since the age of 22.
Six years before his death the first indications of the liver disease appeared an illness thought to have been, at least in part, responsible for his death at the relatively young age of 56.
A forensic examination of a hair thought to be from Beethoven in 2007 revealed lead toxicity may have contributed to the symptoms that led to his death, if not actually caused it.
It’s not particularly shocking given the tradition of imbibing lead vessels and the use of lead in earlier medicinal procedures.
But the most recent research disproves the idea, showing that the hair actually originated from an unidentified lady 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 numerous risk factors for liver disease, but more significantly, several locks that were verified as being much more likely to be from the composer’s head show this to be the case.
As for his other conditions?
“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems,” says Krause.
In some respects, we are left with more questions about the renowned classical composer’s life and demise. Where did he get hepatitis? How did a strand of a woman’s hair pass for Beethoven’s for centuries? And what was causing his stomach aches and hearing loss?
It’s an unfortunate result given that the team was inspired by Beethoven’s wish for the world to comprehend his hearing loss. But there was one more mystery in his DNA.
A mismatch was discovered after matching the Y chromosome in the hair samples to those of contemporary cousins descended from Beethoven’s paternal line. There appears to have been some adulterous hanky-panky in the centuries preceding the composer’s birth.
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 fatal request he made in writing, it might all be more than a youthful Beethoven anticipated. In the aftermath of that melancholy rainy Monday night in 1827, as his friends and colleagues clipped the hair from his body, he would never have imagined the secrets that were being saved.