Beethoven’s DNA Sequenced

March 29, 2023
Beethoven's music playing on a phone

Zeroing in on one extraordinarily famous individual – it feels a little bit like time travel.

Medical geneticist Robert Green, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, on a new study in which researchers sequenced the DNA of Ludwig van Beethoven, discovering clues about his health nearly 200 years after his death.

What To Know: German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) passed away at the age of 56 after suffering with several health afflictions during his life. In his early 30's, he wrote a letter to his brothers which is translated to read: "As soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death." Inspired by this letter, researchers have long sought for clues about the composer's health. Last week, a team of international scientists published a study in which they sequenced DNA found in preserved strands of Beethoven's hair, offering insight into the health of "one of the greatest composers in Western music" (NPR).

Some of their discoveries:

  • Though they were unable to uncover reasons for Beethoven's stomach pain and hearing loss, they discovered he had genetic risk for liver disease along with hepatitis B, which can cause cirrhosis – scarring of the liver. The study notes that these discoveries, along with Beethoven's "broadly accepted alcohol consumption … present plausible explanations for Beethoven's severe liver disease, which culminated in his death."
  • The researchers also compared Beethoven's Y chromosome to the Y chromosome of five of his living relatives, and "unexpectedly" discovered that "they are deeply divergent." This means that before Beethoven was born, someone in his recent ancestry was born to a father who was not a "Beethoven." Therefore, the Beethoven family tree is different than previously thought.

Big Picture: The study authors note, "This study illustrates the contribution and further potential of genomic data as a novel primary source in historical biography."

DNA From Beethoven's Hair Unlocks Family Secret (The Wall Street Journal)

Scientists sequence Beethoven's genome for clues into his painful past (NPR)

Here's the full study: Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven (Current Biology)

by Jenna Lee,