In 1827, the world lost the great musical composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Since then, it's been widely believed that the deaf musician passed away due to lead poisoning. Now, all these years later, the first-ever DNA study conducted on five locks of Beethoven's hair suggests there was an underlying medical condition that caused his illness, helping to solve the mystery that was his death.
The composer, born in 1770, started to lose his hearing in his mid-20s, only to become entirely deaf at the end of his 40s. Throughout his life, he experienced many medical issues, such as gastrointestinal complications, jaundice, and liver disease symptoms. In 1802, the musician enlisted Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt to uncover this unnamed underlying disease, but Schmidt was never successful and died before his patient and friend.
This new study, published in the Current Biology journal, helps shed light on this mysterious underlying condition that caused him all this suffering and ultimately led to his death. "We cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk and an infection with hepatitis B virus," co-author Johannes Krause explained in a statement. "We can also eliminate several other less plausible genetic causes."
The original hair used to conclude his death from lead poisoning was found to have belonged to someone else entirely, so the scientists first secured five strands of hair that were confirmed to belong to the musician. After that, they conducted a DNA study on the hair saved in the latter years of his life. They discovered he had a high genetic risk of liver disease as well as a Hepatitis B infection and alcohol addiction, which would all have damaged the liver further. They noted that further research would be needed to confirm the contribution and weight of each of these factors. "We hope that by making Beethoven's genome publicly available for researchers, and perhaps adding further authenticated locks to the initial chronological series, remaining questions about his health and genealogy can someday be answered," author Tristan James Alexander Begg concluded.