Genetic testing to verify cause of Frédéric Chopin’s death

Photo: Wikipedia/ Louis-Auguste Bisson

Professor Michał Witt from the Institute of Human Genetics PAS in Poznań said that despite the composer’s death certificate declaring tuberculosis as cause of death, there is still room for doubt.

"Chronic cavernous tuberculosis of the lungs with the accompanying laryngeal and intestinal tuberculosis is the most likely diagnosis, and tuberculous pericarditis and rapidly progressing cardiovascular and respiratory failure are the most likely direct causes of his death,” he explained.

“But there are still some doubts and only genetic analysis can give us the final and indisputable evidence to support these hypotheses,” he added.

In 2014, Professor Witt was part of a team that carried out a visual inspection of Chopin's heart stored in a sealed jar which is stored in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, Chopin’s family parish. But the jar cannot be opened without the immediate disintegration of the heart’s tissues.

“Genetic studies could be performed by examining Chopin family members. This would allow us to exclude or confirm genetic charges in the family,” Professor Witt said.

“If cystic fibrosis or alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency affected Chopin's health and contributed to his death and these hypotheses still have not been finally verified - we would be able to determine this through genetic research of the material taken from his deceased relatives,” the professor explained.

Chopin's parents and his younger sister Emilia, who died at the age of 14, are buried in Warsaw's Powązki cemetery where Professor Witt says samples could be taken during renovation of their tombstones.

“Teeth and flat bones of the skull are excellent sources of material for genetic testing; they are very well preserved, other parts of the skeleton disintegrate, while the flat bones of the skull and teeth are preserved much longer,” Professor Witt said.

“We can collect material for genetic testing from such a source in a completely non-destructive manner. Such sampling is completely unnoticeable and in no way violates the dignity or physical completeness of the remains buried in Powązki in Warsaw,” he clarified.

Chopin died in Paris in 1849. According to instructions in his will, his heart was removed and secured so that it could return to Poland. The heart is stored in a crystal jar and immersed in an amber coloured liquid which, historical sources suggest, may be a wine distillate such as brandy or an ethyl alcohol solution.