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DNA from Beethoven's hair reveals medical and family secrets

2023-03-23T13:04:58.005Z


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, wracked with abdominal pain and jaundice, grieving friends and acquaintances came to visit him. Some asked him a favor: The Hiller lock, which according to a study did not come from Beethoven but from a woman, with the inscription of its former owner, Paul Hiller. (William Meredith/Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Stud


It was March 1827 and

Ludwig van Beethoven

was dying.

As he lay in bed, wracked with abdominal pain and jaundice, grieving friends and acquaintances came to visit him.

Some asked him a favor:

The Hiller lock, which according to a study did not come from Beethoven but from a woman, with the inscription of its former owner, Paul Hiller.

(William Meredith/Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University via The New York Times)

Could you cut a lock of hair to remember him?

The parade of mourners continued after Beethoven's death at age 56, even after doctors performed a

gruesome craniotomy on him,

examining the folds of his brain and removing his ear bones in a vain attempt to understand why the revered composer had lost hearing.

Three days after Beethoven's death, not

a lock

of hair remained on his head.

Since then, a cottage industry has tried to understand Beethoven's illnesses and the cause of his death.

Now, the analysis of a lock of hair has called into question the

beliefs

about its health.

Analysis of seven samples of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair has allowed researchers to debunk myths about the revered composer and raise new questions about his life and death.

(Susanna Sabin via The New York Times)

The report offers an explanation for his

debilitating ailments

and even his death, while raising new questions about his genealogical origins and hinting at a

dark family secret.

The work, carried out by an international group of researchers, was published Wednesday in the journal

Current Biology

.

And it offers additional surprises:

An 1827 lithograph of Beethoven on his deathbed done by Josef Danhauser, after his own drawing.

Analysis of seven samples of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair has allowed researchers to debunk myths about the revered composer and raise new questions about his life and death.

(Josef Danhauser, via Beethoven-Haus Bonn via The New York Times)

A famous lock of hair - the subject of a book and a documentary - was not Beethoven's.

It was from an Ashkenazi Jewish woman.

The study also reveals that Beethoven

was not lead poisoned

, as was believed, nor was he black, as some had proposed.

And a Flemish family from Belgium - who share the surname

van Beethoven

and had proudly claimed to be related to him - have no

genetic

link

to him.

Researchers unrelated to the study found it convincing.

The Stumpff lock, from which Beethoven's entire genome was sequenced, with an inscription from its former owner, Patrick Stirling.

.. (Kevin Brown via The New York Times)

This is "a very serious and well-conducted study," says Andaine Seguin-Orlando, an expert in ancient DNA at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France.

Detective work to solve the mysteries of Beethoven's disease began on

December 1, 1994

, when Sotheby's auctioned off a lock of hair purported to be Beethoven's.

Four members of the

American Beethoven Society

, a private group that collects and preserves material related to the composer, purchased it for $7,300.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 20, 2020, a life mask (L) and a death mask of composer Ludwig Van Beethoven are on display at the Funeral Museum in Vienna, Austria.

- Beethoven died in Vienna nearly 200 years ago after a lifetime of composing some of the most influential works in classical music.

Ever since, biographers have sought to explain the causes of the German composer's death at the age of 56, his progressive hearing loss and his well-documented struggles with chronic illness.

A team of researchers who sequenced Beethoven's genome using locks of the German composer's hair may now have some answers.

Liver failure, or cirrhosis, was the possible cause of Beethoven's death brought about by a number of factors, including the composer's alcohol consumption, they said.

(Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

It was proudly displayed at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University (California).

But

was it really Beethoven's hair?

The story was that it had been cut by

Ferdinand Hiller

, a 15-year-old composer and ardent acolyte who visited Beethoven four times before he died.

The day after Beethoven's death, Hiller cut off a lock of Beethoven's hair.

He gave it to his son decades later as a birthday present.

He kept it in a medallion.

The locket with its locks of hair was the subject of a best-selling book, "Beethoven's Hair," by Russell Martin, published in 2000 and made into a

documentary in 2005.

An analysis of the hair performed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois revealed

lead levels 100 times higher

than normal.

In 2007, the authors of an article published in

The Beethoven Journal,

an academic journal published by San José State University, speculated that the composer had inadvertently poisoned himself with medication, wine, or eating and drinking utensils.

This was the case until 2014, when Tristan Begg, then a master's student in archeology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, realized that science had advanced enough to perform DNA analysis using strands

of

Beethoven's hair.

"It seemed like it was worth a try," said Begg, now a PhD student at Cambridge University.

William Meredith, a Beethoven scholar, began to search for other locks of Beethoven's hair, purchasing them with the financial assistance of the American Beethoven Society, at private sales and auctions.

He borrowed two more from a university and a museum.

In the end,

he got eight locks

, including Hiller's.

First, the researchers analyzed Hiller's lock.

As it turned out to be from a woman, it was not - could not be - from Beethoven.

The analysis also showed that the woman had genes found in Ashkenazi Jewish populations.

Meredith speculates that Beethoven's real hair was destroyed and replaced with locks from Sophie Lion, the wife of Hiller's son Paul.

She was Jewish.

As for the other seven strands,

one was not authentic

, five had identical DNA, and one could not be tested.

The five locks with identical DNA were from different sources, and two had impeccable chains of custody, giving investigators certainty

that

they were Beethoven's hair.

Ed Green, an expert in ancient DNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study, agreed.

"The fact that there are so many separate strands of hair, with different histories, matching each other is convincing evidence that this is genuine Beethoven DNA," he said.

When the group had the DNA sequence of Beethoven's hair, it tried to answer longstanding questions about his health.

For example,

why did he die of cirrhosis of the liver

?

He drank, but not to excess, explains Theodore Albrecht, emeritus professor of musicology at Kent State University in Ohio.

Based on his study of the texts left by the composer, he described in an email what is known about Beethoven's alcoholic habits.

"In none of these activities did Beethoven cross the line of consumption that would make him an 'alcoholic,' as we would commonly define him today," he wrote.

Beethoven's hair provided a clue:

he had DNA variants that genetically predisposed him to liver disease.

In addition, her hair contained traces 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 sexual intercourse and shared needles, as well as during childbirth.

Beethoven did not use intravenous drugs, according to Meredith.

He never married, although he became romantically interested in several women.

He also wrote a letter - although he never sent it - to his "Immortal Beloved", whose identity has been the subject of much scholarly intrigue.

The details of his sex life are 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 been infected with hepatitis B during childbirth.

The virus is often spread in this way, and infected babies can end up with a chronic infection that lasts a lifetime.

In about a quarter of people, the infection eventually leads to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

"Ultimately, it could lead to someone dying from liver failure," he said.

The study also revealed that Beethoven

was not

genetically related to others in his family line.

The DNA on his Y chromosome differed from that of a group of five people with the same last name - van Beethoven - who currently live in Belgium and who, according to archives, share a 16th-century ancestor with the composer.

This indicates that in Beethoven's direct paternal line there must have been an

extramarital affair

.

But where?

Maarten Larmuseau, co-author of the new study and professor of genetic genealogy at the University of Louvain (Belgium), suspects that Ludwig van Beethoven

's father was the

result of the composer's grandmother's marriage to a man other than his grandfather.

There are no records of the baptism of Beethoven's father, and it is known that his grandmother was an alcoholic.

Beethoven's grandfather and father had a

difficult relationship.

These factors, according to Larmuseau, are possible indications of an

extramarital child.

Beethoven had his own difficulties with his father, according to Meredith.

And although his grandfather, a prominent court musician in his day, died when Beethoven was very young, Beethoven honored him and kept his portrait with him until the day he died.

Meredith added that when rumors circulated that Beethoven was actually

the illegitimate son

of Frederick William II or even Frederick the Great, Beethoven never refuted them.

The researchers hoped their study of Beethoven's hair would explain some of the composer's distressing health problems.

But he did not provide definitive answers.

The composer suffered terrible digestive problems, with abdominal pain and prolonged bouts of diarrhea.

The DNA analysis did not point to any cause, although it practically ruled out two proposed reasons: celiac disease and ulcerative colitis.

And it made a third hypothesis unlikely:

irritable bowel syndrome.

According to Kocher, hepatitis B could have been the culprit, although it's impossible to know for sure.

DNA analysis also offered no explanation for Beethoven's hearing loss, which began in his mid-20s and progressed to deafness in the last decade of his life.

The researchers took pains to discuss their results beforehand with the people directly affected by their research.

On the afternoon of March 15, Larmuseau met with the five people from Belgium named van Beethoven who had provided DNA for the study.

It started with the bad news:

They are not genetically related to Ludwig van Beethoven.

They stayed hard.

"They didn't know how to react," says Larmuseau.

"Every day they are remembered by their special last name. Every day they say their name and people ask them

: 'Are you related to Ludwig van Beethoven?'

That kinship, Larmuseau said, "is part of his identity."

And now it has disappeared.

The study's conclusions that Hiller's lock belonged to a Jewish woman stunned Martin, author of "Beethoven's Hair."

"Wow, who would have thought that?" he said.

Now, she added, he wants to find descendants of Sophie Lion, Paul Hiller's wife, to see if the hair was hers.

And you'd like to find out if you've had lead poisoning.

For Meredith, the project has been an incredible adventure.

"The whole complex history amazes me," he said.

"And I've been a part of it since 1994. One find just leads to another unexpected find."

c.2023 The New York Times Company

look also

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