Scientists want to test bone fragments, strands of hair and blood stains from Abraham Lincoln to determine if the 16th president had an inherited condition called Marfan's syndrome.
Dr. Marc S. Micozzi, director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, said Saturday that new techniques may make it possible to use 126-year-old specimens in his museum to reconstruct Lincoln's complete genetic pattern.Such studies, he said, could tell much about Abe's aches, pains and health problems.
While settling the historians' debate about whether Lincoln had Marfan's, he said, the studies could also "provide an inspiring perspective" on what people can accomplish despite serious medical problems.
Marfan's is an inherited condition that can have painful and crippling effects. Its most common symptoms include exceptional height and thinness, along with elongated fingers, arms, toes and legs, and the effects of the condition can range from mild to very serious heart problems.
Patients severely affected die at the average age of 32.
Lincoln, assassinated at age 56, had many of the characteristics of Marfan's, but medical data on him aren't detailed enough to determine if he inherited the disorder.
"He was tall and gaunt and narrow in the chest," Micozzi said. "From some descriptions, it looks like his legs and arms may have been within the range that you see with Marfan. But having gone over all the evidence, I do not have an opinion to any reasonable degree of certainty."
To settle the question, Dr. Darwin J. Prockop of the Jefferson Institute of Molecular Medicine in Philadelphia, has proposed genetic testing of medical specimens collected during Lincoln's autopsy in 1865.
Micozzi said his museum had eight to 10 bone fragments recovered by Army doctors when they performed a post-mortem after Lincoln was assassinated. The president was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head as he sat in a box at Ford's Theater in Washington.
The bone fragments, which are only fractional inches in size, bear the beveled marks of penetration by a bullet, Micozzi said. The museum also has strands of hair and clothing stained with Lincoln's blood.
Army doctors who performed the autopsy kept the specimens, and family members turned them over to the museum in the 1950s. Since then, Micozzi said, the specimens have been sealed in airtight glass containers.
Prockop has developed tests that extract DNA, the molecule that contains the genetic pattern, from very small samples of tissue, bone or hair.