What Killed Beethoven? - mystery finally solved
For decades, doctors and historians have tried to figure out how the musical genius, Ludwig van Beethoven, died at age 56. We know from historical reports that he had frequent abdominal pain and bouts of diarrhea, jaundice, fever and edema. His autopsy (crude in 1827) showed diffuse liver injury, thickening of his bones in the auditory canal (which may explain his early deafness), and papillary necrosis of the kidney.
We also know from history that the doctors drained his ascites (paracentesis) several time and prescribed alcohol for pain. He developed a crush on the doctor's niece named, Elise and may have written a song for her. (Guess the song...answer at the end of the post). Other historians have imagined other women friends as the inspiration for the composition.
Thanks to modern DNA testing we now have some medical answers for what killed him. Historical scientists were able to analyze 8 locks of hair that were in private collections and were attributed to Ludwig van Beethoven. Four of the locks had an intact chain of custody from when they were cut. After analysis they found three locks actually came from other individuals and one was from a women with Jewish or North African ancestry. Because this specimen contained high levels of lead, historians had thought Beethoven had lead poisoning. Nope! Not his hair.
Five locks were confirmed to come from Beethoven. There were no answers for a genetic cause for his deafness. DNA gene testing showed Celiac disease and lactose intolerance were not the cause of his chronic GI problems. It also ruled out ulcerative colitis, a cause of severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. His autopsy showed cirrhosis and his DNA put him at 96% for risk. He also had two variants for hereditary hemochromatosis and added to alcohol (we know he drank a lot), could cause cirrhosis.
Adding to the liver problems, hair analysis showed he also contracted Hepatitis B. Hep B was endemic in Europe at the time and the virus can destroy the liver, certainly contributing to his death.