Ludwig van Beethoven was a musical genius who was almost as well known during his lifetime for his health problems as for his titanic, soaring symphonies and his beautiful piano works. Beethoven famously suffered from progressive hearing problems that eventually produced functional deafness–requiring him to produce his later compositions in his head, without actually hearing the music he was creating–but his health problems went beyond hearing loss. Beethoven experienced chronic gastric issues for years, and when he died in 1827, after having been bed-ridden for months, he was afflicted by jaundice, liver disease, swollen limbs, and breathing problems. His health problems were so great that Beethoven wrote out a testament asking that his conditions be studied and shared after his death.
Two hundred years later, scientists have heeded those wishes and tried to figure out what was wrong with Beethoven. They took an interesting approach–identifying locks of the composer’s hair that had been cut from his head in the seven years before his death and preserved ever since, and then using DNA analysis. The team started with eight samples that purported to be Beethoven’s hair, and found that two of the hair clippings weren’t his and another was too damaged to use. One of the five remaining samples had been initially provided by Beethoven himself to a pianist friend, and analysis showed that all of the hair in the samples came from the same European male of Germanic ancestry.
The DNA analysis did not reveal the causes of Beethoven’s deafness or his gut issues, but did indicate that he was suffering from hepatitis B and had genetic risk factors for liver disease that may have been exacerbated by the composer’s alcohol consumption habits–which a close friend wrote included drinking at least a liter of wine with lunch every day. The genetic analysis also determined that one of Beethoven’s ancestors was the product of an extramarital affair.
I’ve ceased to be amazed by the wonders of modern DNA analysis and what it is capable of achieving. To me, the most surprising aspect of this story is that five legitimate clippings of hair from Beethoven’s head survived for two centuries. It make you wonder how many people were given locks of Beethoven’s hair in the first place. Ludwig van’s barber must have been a very popular guy.