How did Beethoven die?

Genetic analysis of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair revealed how the composer may have passed away.

Beethoven / Print Collector/GettyImages

197 years ago today, March 26, 2024, Ludwig van Beethoven died. Yet it wasn’t until last year, in 2023 that we figured out how he really died. And it was all because of a lock of the composer’s hair.

Beethoven was born in 1770 in Germany, and is probably most famous for two things: 1) Writing iconic musical compositions like his “Symphony No. 9,” and 2) going deaf around age 26 or 27. Miraculously, he composed a good chunk of his oeuvre after going deaf, which is partially why there’s been so much genetic analysis of Beethoven – though we’ll get to that in a second.

Over the course of his life, he developed numerous maladies. By 22, he was dealing with serious abdominal pain and diarrhea. There’s the aforementioned deafness, which began to develop a few years later. He may have caught syphilis at some point. And while reports vary whether he was an alcoholic, it’s believed he was drinking daily… Which would be a problem given what researchers discovered last year (we’re really being teases here, sorry).

Beethoven was 56 when he died on March 26, 1827, after multiple symptoms wracked his body from December, 1826 onwards: aches in his side, swollen feet, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and coughing up blood.

Because of his symptoms, his body – and we don’t say this lightly – was ripped to shreds after he died to find out the culprit. According to, the top of Beethoven’s head was cut off, as well as his earbones in order to find the cause of his deafness.

In both 1863 and 1855, his skeleton was exhumed to be transferred first to a new coffin and then a new cemetery, and each time further toxicology reports were done.

However, it was nearly two centuries before we actually figured out what killed Beethoven.

What killed Beethoven? How a lock of hair provides the answers to this centuries old mystery

Ludwig van Beethoven, Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer
Now Then / Print Collector/GettyImages

In 2023, a team of researchers released a report to Current Biology detailing what they had been working on since 2014. Eight locks of Beethoven’s hair reportedly were kept as keepsakes and provided important genetic information they were able to use to figure out what might have killed the composer.

While one lock was definitively a fake, and belonged instead to a nameless Jewish woman, five others provided complimentary genetic material consistent with what the researchers knew about Beethoven.

Eventually, 30 researchers in multiple countries hit on the answer after nearly a decade of study: Beethoven was predisposed to liver infections, and most likely had Hepatitis B. Remember we mentioned the daily drinking? Given the daily alcohol intake combined with the Hep B and his predisposition to liver infections, he most likely died of cirrhosis.

As for his stomach issues, researchers were less sure, though they were able to rule out celiac disease, lactose intolerance, and potentially irritable bowel syndrome as well.

So there you go! Versus the popular theory that’s survived for centuries that Beethoven died of lead poisoning, it was actually liver damage. At least, that’s what we’re going with until we unearth some new piece of Beethoven. The body kind, not the musical kind.

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