Beethoven’s DNA revealed his deafness and illnesses

One stormy Monday in March 1827, the world lost a musical genius. German composer Ludwig von Beethoven died after a long battle with illness. Bedridden since Christmas the previous year, Beethoven had been suffering from jaundice, causing his limbs and abdomen to swell and every breath to be labored.

While sorting through his personal belongings, his assistants came across a document Beethoven had written twenty-five years earlier, a will in which he asked his brothers to make his estate public. Beethoven wanted the world to understand the tragic irony of his life not only from a personal perspective, but also from a medical perspective.

It is widely known today that Beethoven was functionally deaf by the age of 40. However, the cause of his hearing loss has remained a mystery for centuries. In an effort to fulfill Beethoven’s will, a team of researchers embarked on a pioneering study of genetic analysis of DNA in authentic samples of his hair.

“Our main goal was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which were known to include progressive hearing loss,” explained biochemist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

Beethoven’s hearing loss began in his mid-to-late 20s and led to him becoming functionally deaf by 1818. The exact cause of this deafness has yet to be determined by scientists or even his personal physician, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt. At first Beethoven suffered from tinnitus, but gradually his tolerance for loud sounds decreased and eventually he lost the ability to hear high tones, effectively ending his performing career.

In a letter to his brothers, Beethoven admitted that he was “hopelessly ill” and even considered suicide because of his condition. However, hearing loss was not the only health problem that plagued the composer in adulthood.

Beginning at the age of 22, Beethoven suffered from severe stomach pains and chronic bouts of diarrhea. Six years before his death, he developed signs of liver disease, which is believed to be the cause of his untimely death at the age of 56.

In 2007, a forensic examination of a strand of hair believed to be Beethoven’s suggested that lead poisoning may have hastened his death and caused his symptoms. This conclusion is not surprising given the widespread use of lead vessels and medical procedures involving lead at the time.

However, a recent study published in March of this year disproves this theory. The study found that the hair analyzed in 2007 did not belong to Beethoven, but to an unknown woman. In contrast, several locks of hair highly likely to belong to the composer’s head indicate that his death was most likely caused by a hepatitis B infection, exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption and other risk factors for liver disease.

Despite these important findings, the study was unable to determine a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness and gastrointestinal problems. The mysteries surrounding these aspects of Beethoven’s health continue to preoccupy scientists and researchers around the world.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x