What we’ve learned from Beethoven’s hair

Many people have speculated on Beethoven’s cause of death.

What we’ve learned from Beethoven’s hair
A mural of Ludwig van Beethoven is seen at a pedestrian tunnel ahead of his 250th birth anniversary in Bonn, Germany December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler/File Photo

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the biggest names in music history, has been dead for almost 200 years. As he was dying, some of his friends took locks of his hair for remembrance. And some of that hair ended up in the hands of modern-day researchers.

Many people have speculated on Beethoven’s cause of death – with some wondering if he died of illnesses linked to his drinking habits (specifically liver disease). Another explanation that’s circulated is that he suffered from lead poisoning. This is after, a lock of hair that was said to be Beethoven’s was auctioned off in 1994, with the American Beethoven Society bought it for US$7,300. This hair had been clipped off by another young composer and kept in a locket. When it was analyzed by the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the lead levels in it were 100 times normal amounts.

It was in 2014 that an archeology student named Tristan Begg realized that it might be possible to get more info about Beethoven’s condition with new progress made in the science of DNA extraction. So now, these researchers have been able to get new ideas about the cause of his death.

On Wednesday, researchers said that Beethoven’s genome showed that he was both genetically predisposed to liver disease and had a hepatitis B virus infection.

“We don’t exactly vindicate him, but I think the fact that there’s a genetic risk, and possibly hepatitis B – and for who knows how long – I would hope actually [presents] a bit of a paradigm shift away from the preoccupation with alcohol,” said Cambridge University anthropologist Tristan Begg, the study's lead author. “If anything it would have taken less alcohol to do the same amount of damage than we would have earlier assumed.”

Even researchers who weren’t involved with the study are impressed by it. “The procurement of the sample material alone is admirable,” said Christian Reiter, a forensic medical specialist at the Medical University of Vienna who worked with part of Beethoven’s skull in 2022.