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Chopin died from rare tuberculosis complication, new study of composer's pickled heart finds

Diagnosis will hopefully put an end to the long-running dispute over what caused the great composer's death

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Monday 06 November 2017 11:57
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A new examination of Chopin's heart found that he died from a rare complication of chronic tuberculosis
A new examination of Chopin's heart found that he died from a rare complication of chronic tuberculosis

Scientists have used the pickled heart of Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin to determine the cause of his death after more than 170 years.

Chopin, who died in 1849 aged 39, apparently suffered from pericarditis: a rare complication of chronic tuberculosis.

This diagnosis was published in the American Journal of Medicine and is the latest study in a long-running dispute over the cause of his slow decline and eventual death.

Other suggested causes had included the hereditary disease cystic fybrosis, and alpha-1-antitrpsin deficiency, a rare genetic condition which leaves those affected prone to lung infections.

However when researchers examined the jar containing Chopin's heart, which was preserved in a jar of cognac in a church pillar in Poland, they found that it was covered with a fine layer of white fibrous materials.

They also discovered a number of small lesions, which is a tell-tale symptom of serious complications from tuberculosis.

Team leader Professor Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences told the Observer: "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 percarditis was probably the immediate cause of his death."

The team was the first to examine Chopin's heart since 1945, and found that it was 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," Witt said.

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"That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart and in any case I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

Chopin's heart was smuggled past Russian guards and back into Poland by his sister Ludwika, before being sealed inside the Holy Cross church.

The rest of his remains are at Père Lachaise cemetary in Paris, which also serves as the final resting place of artists including Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison.

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