WASHINGTON -- In what could be a precedent-setting decision leading to new knowledge about men and women of history, an expert panel tentatively gave approval yesterday to probing bits of Abraham Lincoln's remains to resolve a medical debate over whether he had the genetic condition called Marfan syndrome.
The announcement to the press was made in the Lincoln Room of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield's office in the Hart Senate Office Building, a room lined with portraits of one of history's best-known faces and other Lincoln memorabilia.
The nine-member panel chaired by Dr. Victor McKusick, a Johns Hopkins University pioneer in the fast-moving field of medical genetics, said that the proposed test violates no laws and holds a potential for public benefit that outweighs ethical considerations of privacy.
"Given that Lincoln has been dead for 126 years, has no lineal descendants and is an uncommonly important historical figure, the committee sees no compelling legal argument to deny access to the samples," Dr. McKusick said, reading a statement representing a consensus of the panel of scientists, scholars and museum officials.
The issue is controversial, however. Ethicist Arthur Caplan, for example, has argued against the invasion of Lincoln's privacy to learn more about his physiology, suggesting that such a project could start a dangerous trend.
The actual investigation -- involving an examination of chips of bone from Lincoln's skull, residues of his blood and locks of his hair, which were taken after he was assassinated and which have been kept in the National Museum of Health and Medicine -- has to await the refining of a genetic test for Marfan syndrome, which may be ready by the end of the year, Dr. McKusick said.
Once the genetic test is available, the panel will examine any new ethical questions that might be raised before giving final approval for the look back in history, Dr. McKusick said. Some of those questions may emerge from debates over the ethics of genetic testing triggered by a massive scientific project now under way to locate and identify all human genes.
The National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology convened the panel to advise it on how to respond to a request from Dr. Darwin Prockop. Dr. Prockop, director of the Jefferson Institute of Molecular Medicine in Philadelphia, asked to be allowed to use the new techniques of molecular genetics on fragments of Lincoln's remains to resolve the question of whether he had Marfan syndrome.
In the 1960s, two doctors independently suggested that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, based on his tall, gaunt physical appearance and on genealogical studies. The genetic condition, which affects about 40,000 Americans, is marked by abnormalities of the skeletal system, heart and eyes.
One of the panel members supporting the study of Lincoln's DNA is Cheryl Williams, president of the National Marfan Foundation, who herself has a mild form of the genetic condition. She hopes the attention that could result from the discovery that a man of Lincoln's stature had Marfan syndrome could impel research and hasten public acceptance of the condition in a way similar to the reaction that followed the news that Rock Hudson died of AIDS.
"For Marfan patients, I think it will tremendously foster research," she said. And if it became public that Lincoln had Marfan, that "will help against discrimination because of his stature."
There are remains of many famous historical figures housed in the National Museum of Health and Medicine and elsewhere.