Famous person found to have ordinary genetic history

It’s only about 200 years old, pulling a DNA sequence out of a hair sample is a piece of cake. So Beethoven’s DNA has been sequenced. He even gave permission!

In 1802, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a heart-wrenching letter to his brothers, describing the deafness that forced him to “live like an exile” and yearn for death. Beethoven kept going for another 25 years, propelled by his music, but he begged them to have his hearing loss studied and publicized, so that “so far as possible, the world may be reconciled to me after my death.”

Two centuries later, a team of international researchers has answered that plea by sequencing Beethoven’s DNA, preserved in locks of his hair that collaborators and fans collected as treasured keepsakes.

The central ailment of Beethoven’s life was his hearing loss, which began in his mid-20s. He also suffered from debilitating gastrointestinal symptoms and attacks of jaundice. An autopsy revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis and a swollen spleen. Medical biographers have debated what killed him and whether his liver disease was the result of excessive drinking or some other cause.

There are limits to what you can do with DNA. They found no genetic evidence for his hearing loss. They did find signs of a susceptibility to liver disease, and that he had hepatitis B. There is absolutely no indication of a genetic source for his musical talent. I’d go so far as to say it is silly to select a 19th century person for a genetic analysis on the basis of musical ability, which is mostly going to be due to circumstance, rather than intrinsic nature (there may be exceptions, like the heritability of perfect pitch, but even that is pretty wobbly.

They did discover something that ol’ Ludwig Van would not have anticipated and probably wouldn’t want advertized.

The analysis also yielded a surprise: Beethoven’s Y chromosome didn’t match those from living relatives. The common relative they all share was Aert van Beethoven, who lived in the 16th century. Somewhere in the seven generations between Aert and Ludwig van Beethoven, a woman in the family tree had a child with an unknown man, and Beethoven seems to be a descendant of that pairing.

We’ve probably all got evidence of ancestral indiscretions in our genes, though, so that shouldn’t reflect on Beethoven, or on his unidentified female ancestor.


  1. Walter Solomon says

    A genetic analysis isn’t needed to know that Beethoven was, undoubtedly, a singularly talented St. Bernard.

  2. larpar says

    @Walter Solomon #1
    Well, carrying around your own barrel of booze probably explains the liver problems. : )

  3. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I’ve literally spent the past 30 minutes trying and failing to not make a “…but is it Aert?” joke.

  4. wzrd1 says

    larpar @2, that’s why I don’t carry the barrel. I have a supertanker parked outside on the river.
    My liver function remains well above normal.

    As for tunes genes, there’s only one known, the Looney Tunes gene, known to be linked to severe addiction to Bugs Bunny and friends.

    Deafness, there are some well documented genetic causes for specific syndromes, others are suspected and not yet proved or linked to specific genes and of course, there are dozens of causes of deafness that are not genetically linked at all.

    As for his family’s relations and interactions, it’s a pure and distilled case of, not my monkey, not my circus.

  5. says

    My organization and I hold Beethoven in highest regard. His compositions have a breadth and depth not only of intellectual genius, but of incredible emotional power. Rudofh Serkin’s performance of the 2nd movement of the Pathetique Sonata Nr. 8 in c minor is exquisite. All this BS about DNA, relatives, ailments, weaknesses is irrelevant.

  6. unclefrogy says

    well I guess he was a normal human being after all and a product of his time.
    that is kind of reassuring

  7. Snidely W says

    A quick reminder that while Beethoven descends from

    a woman in the family tree [who] had a child with an unknown man

    we do not know whether this descent is from an extramarital affair or an extramarital rape.

    I went to the original article in Current Biology to see if they speculated on the paternal line that Ludwig comes from, but the researchers

    … identified five closely related profiles [from the FamilyTreeDNA Y choromosome database]… However, all five of these participants carried dissimilar surnames, …. We were therefore unable to establish Beethoven’s direct genetic patrilineage and the surname of the individual involved in an EPP [extra-pair paternity] event.

  8. flange says

    Being an atheist and sometime musician, the closest I have for “spirituality” and “miracles” is the music of Beethoven (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak.) I know of no scientific explanation, but Genius does exist.

  9. numerobis says

    Finally a counterpart to Famous Genetic History Found To Have Ordinary Person (Herriet Lacks).

  10. says

    It is well known that Beethoven played the glass armonica which used leaded glass. Previous research showed that Beethoven’s hair contained signs of lead poisoning which were sufficient to account for most of his medical problems.

  11. Snidely W says

    @14 zoniedude:
    The original paper addressed this. There were multiple hair samples analyzed. Five of them matched each other and were or general North European/German area ancestry, and were thus considered to be Ludwig’s.
    Three sample were rejected for various reasons. One of those was the one that generated the lead poisoning conjectures. Unfortunately, this sample proved to be from an Ashkenazi Jewish woman.

  12. charley says

    I’d be very surprised if musical ability was a product mostly of circumstance and not due to inherent nature. Differences between siblings can be day and night. How to explain child prodigies? Actually locating the genes responsible, however, is another matter.

  13. KG says

    I hear that the team thought they should check whether the locks of hair were really Beethoven’s, and so exhumed him to get a further genetic sample. To their astonishment, he was sitting up in his grave, with sheets of music and a pen in his hands, crossing out successive lines of his own works.

    “What on earth are you doing, maestro?”
    “I’m decomposing”.

  14. wzrd1 says

    @zoniedude, does that means I have to quit using my lead sugar chewing gum?

    @birgerjohansson, too late, the DNA already shifted.

    @charley, I agree. Musical talent isn’t only experiential, but some seems to be randomly innate. I’ve known entire families that couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but one member still became quite a proficient musician. The converse also being quite true. Some people have it, some don’t.

  15. Thornapple says

    Maybe at the end, it’s always has been hard work, passion, experience and dedication to the craft (plus money) all along. Genius & talent is not something that comes to you through genes.

  16. Thornapple says

    Adding to that, Great Man or Auteur Theory is dud, anyway.

    There could be many other composers of Beethoven’s time who have yet to be discovered.

  17. wzrd1 says

    Given that Beethoven died in 1827, I doubt any discoveries of similar talent will be discovered.

  18. simplicio says

    The music talent gene is adjacent to the IQ gene. They should have checked with an evolutionary psychologist.

  19. birgerjohansson says

    John Morales # 24
    Sabine Hossenfelder ‘s science update videos are always interesting.
    Talented children need food and health care- if they die before they are five years old their talent does not matter.
    Later, they need encouragement and training.
    I am not saying the current Swedish musicians are in a par with Beethoven, but after Abba every kid wanted to be a musician, and the Swedish school system had the infrastructure with music schools to nurture the talent. Thus we got a second and third generation of talented musicians going out in the world.
    In USA there is a horrible waste of talent, it is only a coincidence if an artist gets “discovered” or not, and I doubt all school districts have the resources to nurture the talent, not when the rulers regard schools as factories for future low paid blue-collar workers.

  20. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson : Not just inthe US of A. In the world generally.

    How many Beethovens, how many Mozarts, how many Da Vinci’s, Einstein’s, Marie Curies, Annie Jump-Cannon’s, Frederck Douglas’es, Henrietta Leavitt’s, Nelson Mandela’s, Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham’s, Nina Simone’s and more has humanity missed out on because they never got the opportunities and chances to show their talents?

    How many died never knowing what they could do that we will never know we missed out on?

  21. magistramarla says

    There are autoimmune disorders that can attack any organ, including the liver. There is also such a thing as autoimmune hearing loss.
    My hearing is very bad, and getting worse despite powerful hearing aids. Sjogren’s has attacked my urinary tract and has destroyed my sweat glands. It’s probably only a matter of time before it zeros in on my liver.
    I read some speculation that Van Gough may have suffered from hearing loss and tinnitus due to Sjogren’s as well.
    It certainly makes sense, given where both men lived. The doctor who “discovered” the disease came from the same part of the world.