Published on: 07/26/08
Warsaw, Poland —- Like a religious relic, the heart of composer Frederic Chopin rests in a Warsaw church, untouched since it was preserved in alcohol after his death in 1849 at age 39.
And that's how the Polish government wants to keep it.
Scientists want to remove the heart for DNA tests to see whether Chopin actually died from cystic fibrosis and not tuberculosis as his death certificate stated.
The heart lies in a jar sealed inside a pillar at Warsaw's Holy Cross Church —- and the only time it has been removed was for safekeeping during World War II.
Before it was returned in 1951, a doctor examined the heart and found it perfectly preserved in an alcohol that many think is cognac. Chopin died in France, where his body is buried, but he asked that his heart be sent to his homeland.
Cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease, was not discovered until decades after Chopin's death, and the scientists who want to examine the heart say many of his symptoms match that illness.
A spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry, Iwona Radziszewska, said ministry officials consulted experts and decided "this was neither the time to give approval, nor was it justified by the potential knowledge to be gained."
Grzegorz Michalski, head of the National Frederic Chopin Institute, argued the scientists failed to demonstrate that they had sufficient expertise carrying out such DNA tests or that the chances of success were high.
Geneticist Michal Witt acknowledged that DNA testing might not prove whether Chopin was afflicted with cystic fibrosis, because it's uncertain what condition the heart is in after so many years in alcohol.
Chopin from an early age suffered frail health and nasal and lung infections typical of cystic fibrosis.
In a paper in the Journal of Applied Genetics, Witt cited other symptoms: At age 22, Chopin complained facial hair wouldn't grow on one side of his face, a sign of delayed puberty. He never fathered any children despite sexual relations with several women.
Though Chopin's death certificate says he died of "tuberculosis of the lungs and the larynx," the doctor who treated him, Jean Cruveilhier, said the death was caused "by a disease not previously encountered."
Witt believes it is of more than just academic interest to investigate whether Chopin died of cystic fibrosis.
"It matters for those who are affected with cystic fibrosis," he said. "Can you believe what message you send saying that you might become a genius even if you have a disorder like that?"