November 13, 2017History of Medicine
In 2014, a team of medical experts received permission to remove Polish genius, Frederic Chopin's preserved heart from the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, where it had ultimately been interred, and examine it for clues that might shed light on the mysterious ailment that led to Chopin's death at the age of 39. The diagnosis, published in the American Journal of Medicine this past week, is the latest and most convincing foray into the long-running dispute over the likely cause of Chopin's slow decline and death in his 30s. This published paper suggests that the composer died of pericarditis, a complication of chronic tuberculosis. Other suggested causes of his debilitation and death have included the inherited disease cystic fibrosis; alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, a relatively rare genetic ailment that leaves individuals prone to lung infections; and mitral stenosis, a narrowing of the heart valves. Used for the recent analysis and diagnosis was the great composer's heart, stored in a jar of cognac for 170 years.
An autopsy was performed to try to solve the mysterious cause of the 39-year-old's death. His heart was removed and later stored in a jar of cognac, then interred in a church pillar in Poland. But when the researchers recently examined the jar containing Chopin's heart - kept in the crypt of the Holy Cross church in Warsaw - they noted the heart was covered with a fine coating of white fibrous materials. In addition, small lesions were visible, the telltale symptoms of serious complications of tuberculosis, concluded the team. We didn't open the jar, team leader Professor Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences told the Observer. But from the state of the heart we can say, with high probability, that Chopin suffered from tuberculosis while the complication pericarditis was probably the immediate cause of his death.
The new study is the latest chapter in the strange story of Chopin's heart. After the composer died in October 1849 in Paris the rest of his remains were buried in the city's Pere Lachaise cemetery, also the last resting place of Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. However, his status as a Polish national hero ensured that his heart became embroiled in controversy. Chopin's health began to falter in the late 1830s, ultimately making it difficult for him to continue composing music. Over the years, a number of diseases have been named as the culprit of his physical decline, from cystic fibrosis to alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, a rare genetic condition that eventually leads to lung disease. According to a 2014 article by Alex Ross of the New Yorker, Ludwika Jedrzejewicz, Chopin's eldest sister, smuggled the organ past Austrian and Russian authorities on her way to Poland, hiding the jar that held the heart beneath her cloak. The jar was subsequently encased in a wooden urn and buried beneath a monument at the Holy Cross Church.
In the early 20th century, Chopin, as one of Poland's most famous native sons, became the focus of nationalist fervor in the country. During the WWII-era, Nazi occupiers recognized the symbolic significance of Chopin's legacy and sought to block the performance of his music. But his heart was removed from the Holy Cross and given to the S.S. officer Heinz Reinefarth, who claimed to admire the composer and kept the heart safe at Nazi headquarters in Poland. The organ was returned to Holy Cross in 1945, where it remained until church officials and medical researchers collaborated to dig it up. The examination of the heart by Professor Witt and colleagues was the first since 1945. We found it is still perfectly sealed in the jar, said Witt. Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition. That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin. The recent examination of Chopin's heart is unlikely to quell discussion over the cause of his death. As Nature reports, the organ has never been tested for cystic fibrosis, another proposed cause of Chopin's demise. And some scholars have cast doubt on whether the heart belonged to Chopin at all. But for now, the (possible) relic of the composer can rest undisturbed. Researchers will not be permitted to examine the heart again for another 50 years.
Sources: The Guardian; The Smithsonian; Wikipedia
Here are some favorite Chopin masterpieces.