From Beethoven’s Hair

By Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - CommentaryMarch 26th marked the 196th anniversary of the death of the great composer Ludwig von Beethoven. In 1827, Beethoven died from what doctors believe at the time was a liver ailment. Of course, medicine back then was in a very primitive stage. Ether to put people to sleep during an operation had not yet been developed, and surgery more often than not could be a death sentence. Beethoven died at age 56, and just before he died he had provided some strands of his hair. For close to two centuries, there was not much science could do with human hair. However, it was the custom of the time that those who were about to pass away to donate their hair as a kind of “keep sake.”

Fortunately, hair can provide DNA samples to learn what genetic ailments might have afflicted the deceased. It seems that when Beethoven’s DNA was extracted, the composer most likely suffered from a form of liver ailment, and had contracted Hepatitis B which may have killed him in his last months of life. It now seems certain that Beethoven’s days were numbered because there were no real treatments for liver disease, and really nothing to deal with Hepatitis B. The odds were Beethoven would not have made it into old age (considering what liver disease can do, it is amazing Beethoven lived as long as he did).

While the DNA tests shows what likely killed Beethoven, there are two key question these tests do not answer. One was why Beethoven suffered from stomach problems. Medical records from Beethoven’s time suggest Beethoven suffered from gastroenteritis. This is a maybe, and the DNA samples cannot at this point answer this question. Probably the biggest question is why Beethoven went deaf. For a composer. going deaf is one of the most cruel fates to befall a musical artist. At this point, the DNA cannot answer why Beethoven went deaf, or what may have caused his deafness. At this point there are still unanswered questions about Beethoven’s health, but maybe in the not-so-distant future DNA testing may be able to answer these mysteries.

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