Beethoven’s DNA analysis reveals liver problems and an ancient adultery

Several genetic risk factors for liver disease, at least in the last months of his life he was suffering from hepatitis B and these elements, together with his known alcohol consumption, most likely caused the death of Ludwig van Beethoven, which occurred in 1827 when the famous composer was 56 years old. His DNA says it all, sequenced for the first time in two centuries starting from 5 strands of hair, dating back to his last 7 years of life and attributed to the composer with a wide margin of safety.

Discovered an adultery in his genetic tree

The analysis was published in the journal Current Biology by an international research team led by the German Max Planck Institute and the British University of Cambridge. The analysis also revealed that the composer’s Y chromosome does not match that of any of his five current descendants, who share a common paternal ancestor with him: this indicates that, at some point during the next seven generations, he must at least one extra-marital conception occurred after the birth of their common ancestor, Hendrik van Beethoven, in 1572.

The cause of the composer’s death is not certain

The main aim of the study, led by Tristan Begg of the Max Planck Institute and University of Cambridge, was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which famously include progressive hearing loss and chronic gastrointestinal distress. In 1821, in particular, the composer suffered the first of at least two attacks of jaundice, a symptom of liver disease, and in fact cirrhosis has long been seen as the most probable cause of his death. Researchers have not been able to find a definitive cause for the deafness or gastrointestinal problems, but discovered risk factors related to the liver and infection with the hepatitis B virus confirm cirrhosis as the most plausible explanation. However, the authors of the study were able to eliminate from the list of ‘suspects’ other possible ailments hypothesized in past years, such as celiac disease, lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome, for which Beethoven had a certain degree of genetic protection.

DNA analysis on some strands of hair

To be sure they were working with the German composer’s DNA, the researchers conducted authentication tests on eight hair samples from public and private collections in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. They discovered that at least two of the preserved strands were not genuine, including one believed to have been cut by 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller from the recently deceased Beethoven’s head. Nicknamed the ‘Hiller lock’, her previous analyzes supported the hypothesis that Ludwig suffered from lead poisoning, which could explain his health problems, including hearing loss: however, the lock turned out to belong to a woman.