1) Cut a Hole in a Jar. 2) Put Your Heart in That Jar.

This Chopin’s Heart thing is odd, odd, odd. First of all, I can run with the locks of dead people’s hair tradition, and don’t think it particularly morbid to wear brooches and lockets and other pieces of jewelry to remember lost friends and family members. True, it’s morbid to keep pieces of dead people around, but it’s not like there was much else to use as mementos. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a rise in the availability of photographs occurred with a decline in the keeping of relics. But still? Whose bright idea was it to cut Chopin’s heart out of his chest and preserve it?

I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve preservation, but for an era in which autopsies were definitely unsavory necessities at best, who actually wondered aloud if they should cut open dead Chopin’s chest, crack open his ribs, cut out his heart, and stick it in a jar? I had this whole funny thing written about how such a thing may have come to pass, but then I looked it up. If About.com is to be believed, and I’m not ever going to say that it is, then Chopin had something in his will about preserving his heart in an urn, perhaps as a gift for a girl who likes something real. I haven’t seen the will, and the About.com page doesn’t cite it, and I don’t read Polish, so who knows? Why it ended up in the hands of the mid-19th Century Polish government is another story I’d love to speculate about but could probably research (yet won’t).

And then… who is the guy who actually cut open dead Chopin’s chest, cracked his ribs, cut out the heart, and put it in the jar? Is that pre-arranged? Or does it happen when someone finally reads the will and hurriedly goes and hires a doctor before, you know, the heart is unpreservable? I’m sure that because Chopin knew he was sick he had plenty of times to make his wishes known. I wonder if he was joking. But in the end, here we are with his heart. And Michal Witt wants a piece of it.

This is where the story turns from odd, odd, odd to cool, cool, cool. They want a tiny piece of tissue to do a postmortem genetic test to discover if what everyone assumed was tuberculosis that killed Chopin was cystic fibrosis instead. I love it when science and the arts collide. It’s amazing, first of all, that we can read DNA code in the first place, however basic and common it is to do so. I love, too, when they can diagnosis people from beyond the grave… it really does make history come, well, alive. And armed with new information about Chopin and insight about medical terms of the time, researchers can go back and see if records show other people suffering from what might be a new form of TB or cystic fibrosis. Plus it just rocks.

But why his heart? Wouldn’t his hands be more significant? Or his fountain pen? I can’t believe that two hands floating in a jar would be ickier to look at than a heart. You decide:


OK, maybe it would be ickier.

Anyway, the Polish government said no, that it wouldn’t enhance anyone’s understanding of Chopin to know what exactly he wasted away from (which is probably true) and that the scientists mostly want to satisfy their own curiosity (which is also probably true, but isn’t that sort of why scientists do anything? I’m not talking engineers, here. They want to help people and make and improve stuff and use knowledge, but at the actual lab level, aren’t people just seeing what happens when they do Action A upon Item B?) But what seems most random of all is this quote:

    “It matters for those who are affected with cystic fibrosis, and with any other debilitating chronic disorder,” he said. “Can you believe what message you send saying that you might become a genius even if you have a disorder like that? And it is a question worth answering if possible.”

I’m sorry. What? Do people with cystic fibrosis have this idea that they aren’t geniuses or that cystic fibrosis is generally incompatible with talent and ability? I know it’s trendy right now for the autism crowd to go around claiming famous people as one of their own, but autism is a neurological thing that does affect how individuals interact with the world and with others; it is true that they sometimes have hidden talents and genius ideas that might be overlooked by people who don’t understand them. But cystic fibrosis? Where’s this idea that everyone with a disease needs a genius role model? Not that anyone should ignore Chopin as a role model or as a genius… I’m not saying that. But that is such a major disconnect. I remember that made-for-TV movie in the 1980s… one about cystic fibrosis and the devastating effect it has on families and how one child taught them all to overcome (perhaps Alex: The Life of a Child. All I remember is that people with cystic fibrosis cough blood. Little Fella ended up at the doctor’s office when he was a baby being tested for CF because he was underweight (it was a ruling-out thing and never really a hope-it’s-not thing and his only problem was ever that he wasn’t eating enough food), so I know now that people with this disease have trouble maintaining weight. But I don’t know that they are known for mental problems, or music problems, or anything else that might have to do with Chopin.

I just don’t understand this kind of thinking. Obviously, it’s irrelevant. Why would he say that? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a quote pulled out of context, but then why focus on that? What’s with people these days that every. single. possible. group needs to prove that it counts genius among it’s ranks? It’s a totally stupid idea that you would test Chopin’s heart to make people with cystic fibrosis feel better about themselves. Start talking like that and people are going to think that this is a useless endeavor. I don’t blame the government for saying no if they’re weighing statements like that as evidence for why this biopsy needs to be done. You really shouldn’t cut up national treasures–and this heart in a jar is treasured by this nation–just to make people with perfectly good brains feel better about their brains. Surely even a free intern could have come up with a better spin.

In happier albeit much belated news, at the University of Minnesota this past January, scientists frikkin grew a heart in a jar–a heart that beats. This is Edgar Allen Poe come to life. Like I said, science meeting art is all kinds of win. And you just never know what kind of wonderfulness you’re gonna find when you do a Google image search on “heart in a jar.”

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  • Megan  On July 26, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    This is only tangentially related, but this reminds of some stand up routine I saw once where the guy was talking about some discovery channel type show about the search for who killed King Tut. He was like, “Really? So we’re all caught up on all the present day murders that we have time to figure this out?”

  • steven lagerberg MD  On September 8, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    As a physician and a Chopin scholar I wonder why Professor Witt bypassed a mtDNA analysis of Chopin’s hair to attempt the much more politically-sensitive analysis of his preserved/interred heart. Wouldn’t a hair analysis be the first step? Admittedly, imperfect, yet probably more available. Curious and intrigued.

  • Nicholas West  On July 25, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    “Whose bright idea was it to cut Chopin’s heart out of his chest and preserve it?”

    Chopin himself requested in a handwritten note that this be done at the time of his death, as he had a torturous fear of being buried alive. This is a well known fact, and images of the note, his last wish (that his body be opened at his death), can be found on the internet.

    He resided in France but was a Polish patriot and wanted to be buried in Poland. His French friends wanted him in France. So as his heart was taken out anyway as per Chopin’s wishes, they sent the heart to Poland.

    Try reading about a subject first. Chopin lived in a time and culture that modern day American’s are ill-equipped to understand.

  • Karen  On July 25, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    I looked it up and read on a website I linked to that it was in Chopin’s will, but because I can’t access the primary source information myself, I had to say that I wasn’t completely sure that the website was telling the truth; I read neither French nor Polish, and don’t put a lot of stock in Internet translation services. The part about the heart in a jar being for “a girl who likes something real” was a joke referring to the “Dick in a Box” song, from which I paraphrased the title. I don’t know that my tone probably matched the seriousness of the matter, but there you have it. I don’t think you can extrapolate from this one blog post whether modern Americans are equipped to understand the dead person relic culture of the 19th century, or if the lot of us are well-informed about the details of Chopin’s life. Mostly I was interested in the work on Chopin’s DNA for cystic fibrosis research, and was just fooling around at the first part, but I am glad you clarified the situation with more specific details.

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