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What made Beethoven sick? They look for clues in her hair


NEW YORK — Nearly 200 years after Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, researchers have extracted DNA from strands of his hair for clues to his health problems and hearing loss.

It can’t solve the case of the German composer’s deafness or severe stomach ailments, but it did find a genetic risk for liver disease, as well as a hepatitis B infection that damaged his liver in the last months of his life.

These factors, along with his chronic alcohol use, were likely necessary to cause the liver failure that is believed to have killed him, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.

Next Sunday will be the 196th anniversary of Beethoven’s death in Vienna, at the age of 56. The composer himself wrote that he wanted doctors to study his health problems after his death on March 26, 1827.

“In the case of Beethoven in particular, it so happened that illnesses sometimes limited his creative work a lot,” said study author Axel Schmidt, a geneticist at Bonn University Hospital in Germany. “And for doctors, it’s always been a mystery what was really behind it.”

Since the musician’s death, scientists have long tried to piece together Beethoven’s medical history, offering a variety of possible explanations for his many illnesses.

Now, with advances in ancient DNA technology, researchers have been able to extract genetic clues from locks of Beethoven’s hair that were cut off and preserved as keepsakes. According to the study, they focused on five mechanisms that are “almost certainly true” and that they come from the same European man.

They also examined three other ancient curls, but we cannot confirm that they were actually Beethoven’s. Previous tests on one of those curls indicated that Beethoven had suffered from lead poisoning, but researchers later concluded that the sample was actually from a woman.

After cleaning Beethoven’s hair one by one, the scientists dissolved the pieces in a solution and extracted bits of DNA, explained study author Tristan James Alexander Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge.

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