Simanaitis Says

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I’VE LONG BEEN ENVIOUS of Ludwig van Beethoven’s unruly head of hair. When I visit the nice lady who trims my hair occasionally (no, make that aperiodically), I say, “concert conductor’s, please, not banker’s). Don’t you love this much-reproduced image of the great Beethoven?

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770–1827, German composer extraordinaire. Image appearing here at SimanaitisSays at “The Arrogance of Genius”.

Most recently, the image reappeared in Gina Kolata’s “DNA From Beethoven’s Hair Unlocks Medical and Family Secrets,” The New York Times, March 22, 2023. She credits the contemporary portrait to Joseph Karl Stieler. By the way, I remember Gina from her excellent reporting at AAAS Science.

Here are tidbits gleaned from her article, along with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Passing into Eternity, with Plenteous Memorabilia Remaining. When Beethoven neared death, grieving friends and admirers asked if they could clip a lock of his hair for remembrance. Gina notes, “The parade of mourners continued after Beethoven’s death at age 56, even after doctors performed a gruesome craniotomy, looking at the folds in Beethoven’s brain and removing his ear bones in a vain attempt to understand why the revered composer lost his hearing.”

Amazingly enough, she notes, “Within three days of Beethoven’s death, not a single strand of hair was left on his head. Ever since, a cottage industry has aimed to understand Beethoven’s illnesses and the cause of his death.”

Earlier Locks Misleading. A best-selling book, Beethoven’s Hair, by Russell Martin, 2000, and subsequent documentary in 2005 were based on “the Hillier lock,” supposedly clipped a day after the composer died.

Gina writes, “That was where matters stood until 2014 when Tristan Begg, then a masters student studying archaeology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, realized that science had advanced enough for DNA analysis using locks of Beethoven’s hair.”

Hair-splitting Analyses. Gina continues, “William Meredith, a Beethoven scholar, began searching for other locks of Beethoven’s hair, buying them with financial support from the American Beethoven Society, at private sales and auctions. He borrowed two more from a university and a museum. He ended up with eight locks, including the hairs from Ferdinand Hiller.”

Begg, Meredith, and 31 other researchers published their findings about Beethoven’s acquired mop in “Geonomic Analyses of Hair from Ludwig van Beethoven,” in Current Biology, March 22, 2023. In particular, they note, “We deemed five of these authentic and sequenced Beethoven’s genome to high coverage. Beethoven had a predisposition for liver disease and became infected with hepatitis B. We also discovered an extra-pair-paternity event in Beethoven’s paternal line.” 

Wow! The paper, even its complex DNA details, makes for excellent reading. I’ll bet Gina enjoyed it too.

The Hiller Lock. “First,” she recounts, “the researchers tested the Hiller lock. Because it turned out to be from a woman, it was not—could not be—Beethoven’s. The analysis also showed that the woman had genes found in Ashkenazi Jewish populations.” Dr. Meredith speculates that the authentic hair from Beethoven was destroyed and replaced with strands from Sophie Lion, the wife of Ferdinand Hiller’s son Paul. She was Jewish.”

Lab work on a Beethoven lock at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Photo by Susanna Sabin. This and the following image from The New York Times, March 22, 2023.

The Other Seven. Gina reports, “As for the other seven locks, one was inauthentic, five had identical DNA and one could not be tested. The five locks with identical DNA were of different provenances and two had impeccable chains of custody, which gave the researchers confidence that they were hair from Beethoven.”

The Belgian Branch. “The study also revealed,” Gina writes, “that Beethoven was not genetically related to others in his family line. His Y chromosome DNA differed from that of a group of five people with the same last name—van Beethoven—living in Belgium today and who, according to archival records, share a 16th-century ancestor with the composer. That indicates there must have been an out-of-wedlock affair in Beethoven’s direct paternal line. But where?”

Belgian researcher Dr. Maarten Larmuseau, Gina writes, “suspects that Ludwig van Beethoven’s father was born to the composer’s grandmother with a man other than his grandfather. There are no baptismal records for Beethoven’s father, and his grandmother was known to have been an alcoholic. Beethoven’s grandfather and father had a difficult relationship. These factors, Dr. Larmuseau said, are possible signs of an extramarital child.”

The Stumpff lock, from which Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced, with an inscription by its former owner Patrick Stirling. Photo by Kevin Brown.

The Hepatitis B Thesis. Among the things investigated was whether Beethoven died of cirrhosis of the liver. Gina notes, “Beethoven’s hair provided a clue: He had DNA variants that made him genetically predisposed to liver disease. In addition, his hair contained traces of hepatitis B DNA, indicating an infection with this virus, which can destroy a person’s liver.”

DIT-dit-dit DAH.

How did he catch this infection? It’s conjectured during his birth. Unlike a crop of modern druggie musicians, it’s likely he didn’t pick it up through shared needles. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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