Ludwig van Beethoven.
Gulf Today Report
Nearly two centuries ago, on March 26, 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most influential composers in the history of classical music, died in Vienna at the age of 56. But since then, discussions about the exact causes of his death have not ceased among specialists.
Finally, researchers used an unprecedented technique to reveal new information about the death of the German composer at an early age, by analyzing his DNA based on strands of his hair.
Their study, the results of which were published on Wednesday, in the scientific journal “Current Biology”, revealed a strong genetic predisposition in Beethoven to develop liver disease, in addition to being infected with hepatitis B virus in his late life, two factors that may have contributed to his death.
Most likely from cirrhosis of the liver that was exacerbated by his alcohol use.
But the researchers could not explain the cause of his progressive deafness, which caused so much pain to the author.
In 1802, the composer expressed in a letter to his brothers, written in a moment of despair, his desire to describe his illness after his death and to publish its causes publicly.
"We pursued this desire," Tristan Begg, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, told a news conference.
Although there remains a mystery about some of Beethoven's many illnesses, "we were very lucky to have such wonderful results," says Begg, who launched the project in 2014.
Five strands of hair
Prior to this new study, research on Beethoven's health relied mainly on his correspondence, diaries, notes from his doctors, or even the autopsy report.
This time, the scientists looked at eight tufts of hair identified as belonging to Beethoven that were in public or private collections.
The researchers concluded that five of these tufts belonged to one man, with changes to them showing that they date back to the early nineteenth century.
There are many documents detailing precisely the trajectory of two of these five traits over the past two centuries. One of these two locks was gifted by Beethoven himself in 1826 to a musician friend, and the second was with a family friend who arranged his funeral, until they were sold at auction in 2016.
According to the researchers, these five traits, which were present during the last seven years of Beethoven's life, are almost certainly original.
On the other hand, the researchers excluded in their studies three other traits, one of which was used to support the hypothesis of Beethoven's death by lead poisoning, but it turned out, in fact, that it belonged to a woman.
The DNA was then sequenced in Germany, at the laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology in Leipzig, where studies of prehistoric humans are usually carried out.
In contrast to bone analysis, “in hair, the DNA is very degraded,” explains Johannes Krause, head of the genetics department at this institute, and a co-author of the study.
"It was challenging to collect enough DNA to fully determine the makeup of the genome," Krause said.
"It was really hard to actually get enough DNA from such a sample to assemble a genome. We had to extract the DNA from more than 2 meters (7 feet) of hair from one of the locks, the so-called Stumpff Lock," Krause added.
The study concluded that Beethoven, who had at least two bouts of jaundice, the first in 1821, had a "high genetic predisposition" to liver disease.
The study also revealed that Beethoven was infected with the hepatitis B virus, at least during the last months of his life, but the infection may have occurred before that. However, this chronic disease is a major cause of cirrhosis.
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