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Chopin’s Preserved Heart May Offer Clues About His Death

Scientists who recently examined the organ have suggested that Chopin died of complications from tuberculosis

Chopin at 25, by his fiancée Maria Wodzińska. (Wikimedia CC)
smithsonian.com

Before he died on October 17, 1849, Frédéric Chopin made an unusual request: He wanted his heart to be removed from his corpse and transported from Paris, where the famed composer had lived and worked for nearly 20 years, to his native Poland. Chopin’s sister complied, arranging for her brother’s heart to be preserved in an alcoholic liquid—possibly cognac—and bringing it to Poland herself.

In 2014, a team of medical experts received permission to remove 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. As Robin McKie reports for the The Guardian, the team recently published a paper suggesting that the composer died of pericarditis, a complication of chronic tuberculosis.

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. But when researchers looked at Chopin’s embalmed heart, they noticed that it was covered in white fibrous materials and dotted with lesions, which can indicate tuberculous pericarditis, a rare complication of chronic tuberculosis that causes inflammation of the tissues surrounding the heart. The researchers detailed their findings in a paper published in The American Journal of Medicine

The team was not allowed to remove the heart from its jar, but the authors of the study nevertheless assert they can say “with high probability, that Chopin suffered from long lasting tuberculosis as the primary disease” and that pericarditis “might have been an immediate cause of his death.”

The new study marks the latest chapter in the long and rather dramatic postmortem story of Chopin’s heart. The composer was famously terrified of being interred while still alive, and before he died, he penciled his final request onto a sheet of letter paper: “As this cough will choke me, I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.”

According to a 2014 article by Alex Ross of the New Yorker, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, 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 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. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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