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Did Chopin have CF?

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Frédéric Chopin, the romantic composer and virtuoso pianist, was born 200 years ago in a village near Warsaw. He usually claimed to have been born on 1 March 1810, although church records suggest a date one week earlier.

In 1830, at the age of 20, Chopin began travelling in Europe and eventually settled in Paris as a composer and piano teacher, later becoming a French citizen.

Chopin had been a sickly child and remained ill for the rest of his life. Friends and acquaintances described him as markedly underweight, with an emaciated appearance, a persistent chronic cough and frequent lung infections. In the winter of 1835–36 he was so ill that Warsaw was alive with rumours of his death.

In 1837 Chopin famously entered into a relationship with the French novelist Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name of George Sand. But his health continued to deteriorate and Sand found herself spending more and more of her time as his nurse rather than his lover. They eventually parted in 1847.

Chopin died in Paris on 17 October 1849 after spending his last year confined to bed, suffering from severe joint pains, depression and shortness of breath.

According to Chopin’s death certificate, the cause of death was “tuberculosis of the lungs and larynx”. However, that had not been the conclusion of a post-mortem examination. The pathologist, who was an expert on pulmonary tuberculosis, wrote in his report that Chopin’s illness was a disease he had never seen before, with characteristics that ruled out tuberculosis.

So, if it was not tuberculosis, what was Chopin’s lifelong illness? There is good reason to believe that it was cystic fibrosis, a disease that was not properly recognised until a century after his death.

Since it can affect various other organs as well as the lungs, cystic fibrosis could explain many aspects of Chopin’s illness, including recurrent lung infections, an enlarged heart, gastrointestinal problems and possible infertility. (He had no known children, despite more than one passionate affair.)

And the fact that two of his three sisters died prematurely suffering from similar conditions, including multiple organ failure, suggests that the Chopin family was afflicted by this genetic disorder.

There is one way the cystic fibrosis theory could be tested. Before Chopin was buried in Paris’s Pére Lachaise Cemetery, his heart was removed, pickled in brandy and taken back to his beloved Warsaw. A sample of his heart tissue could be tested for the cystic fibrosis mutation.

However, the Polish authorities have refused to allow such a test and so, for the time being at least, the cause of the composer’s condition will remain a mystery.

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