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Beethoven DNA unlocked

Scientists have revealed clues about the iconic composer’s health problems

A genetic liver condition, coupled with excessive drinking and a hepatitis B infection, were likely key factors in the death of Ludwig van Beethoven nearly 200 years ago, according to the findings of DNA analysis of strands of his hair, published on Wednesday by the scientific journal Current Biology.

The German composer, who is generally considered to be among the foremost influences on popular music in the past two centuries, died in Vienna in March 1827 while suffering from several health ailments – not least of which was hearing difficulties that emerged in his late-twenties and which eventually developed into complete deafness when he was about 44.

But while the cause of Beethoven’s deafness remains a mystery, advances in DNA sequencing technology has provided a snapshot of the composer’s health sourced from strands of his hair which had been saved as keepsakes, revealing a picture of a man who battled various health issues throughout his life.

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(L) Terry Adkins' interpretation of Beethoven © Facebook / BOZARbrussels; (R) Beethoven 1820 portrait © Wikipedia
‘Was Beethoven black?’ In any normal society, the answer would be no, but we no longer live in a normal society.

“With Beethoven in particular, it is the case that illnesses sometimes very much limited his creative work,” the author of the study, geneticist Axel Schmidt, said via Associated Press on Wednesday. “And for physicians, it has always been a mystery what was really behind it.” 

In addition to the liver problems which were likely key factors in his death, scientists found evidence of gastrointestinal issues, of which the composer had complained throughout his life. Beethoven had written before his death of his desire for doctors to study the sources of his various health maladies after his death. Now, close to 200 years later, the DNA analysis ruled out celiac disease and lactose intolerance as being responsible – but provided no clear diagnosis.

The analysis also provided evidence of what scientists describe as an “extra-pair paternity event,” meaning that a child was born out of an extra-marital affair in one of the generations before Beethoven’s birth in Bonn, Germany in 1770.

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But, even with the modern advancements of DNA analysis, some of Beethoven’s mysteries remain shrouded by time – and the mystery is what makes Beethoven such an engaging case study, according to Dr Avraham Z. Cooper of Ohio State University, who was not involved in the analysis. “I think the fact that we can’t know is OK,” he said.

March 23, 2023 at 12:47AM
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