Study of Frédéric Chopin’s Cognac-pickled heart reveals how he died

In a study, due to be published in full next year, scientists have finally determined the cause of death of celebrated composer Frédéric Chopin after being granted rare access to his heart that has been preserved in a jar of Cognac.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Image: Wiki

Chopin, who died at the age of 39, was a prolific, 19th century Polish composer who primarily wrote works for the piano. When he passed away in October 1849, it was thought he had died from tuberculosis.

The composer requested that his body should be cut open after his death and his heart taken out and transported from Paris back to his native Poland.

“The earth is suffocating,” he said as he lay on his death bed in 1849. “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.”

An autopsy was duly carried out and his body was buried in Paris in the Père Lachaise cemetery, also home to the graves of artist Eugène Delacroix, singer Édith Piaf, playwright and actor Molière and novelist Marcel Proust.

It is thought his eldest sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, complied with his wishes, smuggling his heart out of the country in a jar filled with what appears to be Cognac, and interring it in a church pillar in Warsaw.

During the Warsaw uprising in 1944, his heart was removed by the Nazis and given to the S.S. officer Heinz Reinefarth. It was subsequently returned to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw in 1945, where it remained until it was secretly exhumed in 2014.

At the exhumation, which took place on 14 April, hundreds of photographs were taken of the heart and wax was added to the jar’s seal to prevent further evaporation of the alcohol.

The final resting place of Chopin’s heart in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, Poland.

In a study – an early, shortened version of which has been published in the American Journal of Medicine – scientists believe they have discovered Chopin’s cause of death after examining photos of his heart.

They observed that the heart was “massively enlarged and floppy” and coated with white fibrous materials giving it a “frosted appearance” with small lesions across its surface. This led the team to conclude that the revered composer died of pericarditis, an inflammation of tissue around the heart, which was likely caused by his pre-existing tuberculosis.

Speaking to The Observer, team leader Professor Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences said: “We didn’t open the jar, 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.”

He added: “We found it is still perfectly sealed in the jar. 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 full study, entitled “A Closer Look at Frederic Chopin’s Cause of Death’, is due to published in February 2018. A shortened version can be read here. 

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