DNA from Beethoven’s hair reveals medical and family secrets
It was March 1827 and Ludwig van Beethoven was dying. As he lay in bed with abdominal pain and jaundice, grieving friends and acquaintances came to visit. And some asked a favor: could they cut off a strand of his hair as a reminder?
The parade of mourners continued after Beethoven’s death at the age of 56, even after doctors performed a gruesome craniotomy, looking at the folds in Beethoven’s brain and removing his ear bones, in a vain attempt to understand why the revered composer be lost hearing.
Within three days of Beethoven’s death, not a single strand of hair was left on his head.
Since then, a do-it-yourselfer has been trying to understand Beethoven’s illnesses and the cause of his death.
Now, an analysis of his strands of hair has turned long-held beliefs about his health on their head. The account provides an explanation for his debilitating ailments and even his death, while raising new questions about his genealogical origins and pointing to a dark family secret.
The paper by an international group of researchers was published in the journal Current Biology on Wednesday.
It offers additional surprises: A famous strand of hair – the subject of a book and a documentary – did not come from Beethoven. It was from an Ashkenazi Jew.
The study also found that Beethoven did not have lead poisoning, as was commonly believed. Nor was he black, as some had claimed.
And a Flemish family in Belgium – who share the van Beethoven surname and had proudly claimed kinship – had no genetic link to him.
Researchers unaffiliated with the study found them compelling.
It was “a very serious and well-conducted study,” said Andaine Seguin-Orlando, an ancient DNA expert at Paul Sabatier University, Toulouse, in France.
The detective work to unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s illness began on December 1, 1994, when a lock of hair believed to belong to Beethoven was auctioned off by Sotheby’s. Four members of the American Beethoven Society, a private group that collects and preserves material about the composer, bought it for $7,300. They proudly displayed it at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University in California.
But was it really Beethoven’s hair?
The story went that it was clipped by Ferdinand Hiller, a 15-year-old composer and ardent acolyte who visited Beethoven four times before his death.
The day after Beethoven’s death, Hiller cut off a strand of hair. He gave it to his son decades later as a birthday present. It was kept in a locket.
The locket with its strands of hair was the subject of a bestselling book, Beethoven’s Hair, by Russell Martin, published in 2000 and made into a documentary in 2005.
An analysis of the hair at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois found lead levels as high as 100 times the normal value.
In 2007, authors of an article in The Beethoven Journal, a scholarly journal published by San Jose State, speculated that the composer might have been accidentally poisoned by drugs, wine, or eating and drinking utensils.
That was until 2014, when Tristan Begg, then a master’s student in archeology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, determined that the science was advanced enough to analyze DNA using strands of Beethoven’s hair.
“It seemed worth a try,” said Mr. Begg, now a Ph.D. Student at Cambridge University.
William Meredith, a Beethoven fellow, began searching for other strands of Beethoven’s hair and, with financial support from the American Beethoven Society, purchased them at private sales and auctions. He borrowed two more from a university and a museum. He ended up with eight locks, including Ferdinand Hiller’s hair.
First, the researchers tested the Hiller lock. As it turned out to be from a woman, it wasn’t Beethoven’s – it couldn’t be. The analysis also showed that the woman had genes found in the Ashkenazi Jewish population.
dr Meredith speculates that Beethoven’s authentic hair was destroyed and replaced with strands belonging to Sophie Lion, wife of Ferdinand Hiller’s son Paul. She was Jewish.
Of the other seven locks, one was fake, five had identical DNA, and one could not be tested. The five locks with identical DNA were of different origins and two had impeccable storage chains, giving researchers confidence that they were Beethoven’s hair.
Ed Green, an ancient DNA expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study, agreed.
“The fact that they have so many independent strands of hair with different stories that all agree with each other is compelling evidence that this is real Beethoven DNA,” he said.
Once the group had the DNA sequence of Beethoven’s hair, they attempted to answer longstanding questions about his health. For example, why could he have died of cirrhosis of the liver?
He drank, but not to excess, said Theodore Albrecht, professor emeritus of musicology at Kent State University in Ohio. Based on his study of texts left by the composer, he described in an email what is known about Beethoven’s drinking habits.
“Beethoven never crossed the line of consumption in any of these activities that would make him an ‘alcoholic,’ as we would commonly define it today,” he wrote.
Beethoven’s hair provided a clue: he had DNA variants that made him genetically predisposed to liver disease. Also, his hair contained trace amounts of hepatitis B DNA, indicating infection with this virus, which can destroy a person’s liver.
But how did Beethoven get infected? Hepatitis B is transmitted through sex and shared needles, and during childbirth.
Beethoven did not take any intravenous drugs, said Dr. meredith He never married, although he was romantically interested in several women. He also wrote a letter — though he never sent it — to his “immortal beloved,” whose identity has been the subject of much scholarly intrigue. Details of his sex life remain unknown.
Arthur Kocher, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and one of the co-authors of the new study, offered another possible explanation for his infection: the composer could have contracted hepatitis B during birth. The virus is often spread this way, he said, and infected babies could get a chronic infection that lasts for life. In about a quarter of people, chronic infection eventually leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer.
“It could ultimately result in someone dying of liver failure,” he said.
The study also found that Beethoven was not genetically related to others in his family line. His Y-chromosome DNA differed from that of a group of five people with the same surname – van Beethoven – now living in Belgium who, according to archival records, share a 16th-century ancestor with the composer. This indicates that there must have been an extramarital affair in Beethoven’s direct paternal line. But where?
Maarten Larmuseau, co-author of the new study and professor of genetic genealogy at the University of Leuven in Belgium, suspects that Ludwig van Beethoven’s father was born to the composer’s grandmother with a man other than his grandfather. There are no baptismal records for Beethoven’s father and his grandmother was known to be an alcoholic. Beethoven’s grandfather and father had a difficult relationship. Those factors, said Dr. Larmuseau, are possible signs of an illegitimate child.
Beethoven had his own troubles with his father, said Dr. meredith And while his grandfather, a well-known court musician in his day, died when Beethoven was very young, he honored him and kept his portrait with him until his death.
dr Meredith added that rumors circulating that Beethoven was in fact the illegitimate son of Frederick William II, or even Frederick the Great, have never been refuted by Beethoven.
The researchers had hoped that their study of Beethoven’s hair might explain some of the composer’s nagging health problems. But there were no definitive answers.
The composer suffered from terrible digestive problems with abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea. DNA analysis did not suggest a cause, although it fairly ruled out two proposed causes: celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. And it made a third hypothesis – irritable bowel syndrome – unlikely.
Hepatitis B may have been the culprit, said Dr. Kocher, although it’s impossible to know for sure.
The DNA analysis also provided no explanation for Beethoven’s hearing loss, which began in his mid-20s and led to deafness in the last decade of his life.
The researchers have endeavored to discuss their results in advance with those directly affected by their research.
On the evening of March 15, Dr. Larmuseau with the five people in Belgium whose surname is van Beethoven who provided DNA for the study.
He immediately started with the bad news: you are not genetically related to Ludwig van Beethoven.
They were shocked.
“They didn’t know how to react,” said Dr. Larmuseau. “Every day she is remembered by her special last name. Every day they call their name and people say, ‘Are you related to Ludwig van Beethoven?’”
This relationship, said Dr. Larmuseau, “is part of their identity.”
And now it’s gone.
The results of the study, that the Hiller lock came from a Jewish woman, stunned Mr. Martin, author of “Beethoven’s Hair”.
“Wow, who would have thought that,” he said. Now, he added, he wants to find descendants of Sophie Lion, wife of Paul Hiller, to see if the hair is hers. And he’d like to find out if she had lead poisoning.
for dr For Meredith, the project was an incredible adventure.
“The whole complex story amazes me,” he said. “And I’ve been here since 1994. One realization only leads to another unexpected realization.”