What Can Lincoln's DNA Tell Us?

Come along with me, past all the bicentennial hoopla, to a quiet place north of the White House. Here, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, you'll find a glass case housing the most incredible Lincoln memorabilia on the planet: the man himself. His blood on the cuff of a surgeon's shirt. Snippets of his chocolate brown hair. A handful of bone fragments removed from his skull.

Yes, Lincoln! Guess what that might mean? Lincoln's DNA! Scientists have been speculating about the president's health for decades. It's believed he had malaria, smallpox and depression. Syphilis has been debated. And there are hypotheses about three rare genetic disorders—Marfan syndrome, spinocerebellar ataxia 5 and multiple endocrine neoplasia 2B (MEN 2B). If scientists had access to Lincoln's DNA, might they be able to clarify the medical history of one of the world's greatest historical figures? Could they also sequence his entire genome, and perhaps trace his genealogical roots back to their origins? Should the 16th president's mortal remains be put to the test?

I'm not the first person to ask this question nor am I the first to think it's a very intriguing idea. As far back as 1991, a panel of experts gave scientists a "qualified green light" to test Lincoln's DNA for Marfan syndrome—decades after a physician proposed that the president might have had it. At the time, researchers decided it wasn't technically feasible to move forward, but genetic testing is far more sophisticated today.

Experts say it might be possible to extract chopped-up bits of DNA from these museum remnants, assemble them into the gene they're looking for, then make a diagnosis. There are, of course, considerable challenges: nobody knows whether there's enough DNA in good enough condition to do a gene test, or to do one conclusively. As for sequencing Lincoln's entire genome, "I don't think it's doable," says Dr. Philip Reilly, author of "Abraham Lincoln's DNA," because there are such small pieces left and there would likely be large gaps.

If Lincoln had ataxia 5, a neurological disorder, he'd have something in common with 90 relatives descended from his paternal aunt and uncle. University of Minnesota genetics professor Laura Ranum says there's a 25 percent chance. If so, the president would be a great example of somebody overcoming physical challenges to achieve greatness, she says. She'd love to see a test. So would Josephine Grima, of the National Marfan Foundation. "It would help raise awareness exponentially," she says. "Like what Roosevelt did for polio."

If Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, characterized by a tall lanky body, long face and deep-set eyes, he would have outlived most patients—and probably wouldn't have survived much past 56 anyway. Same with MEN 2B. Dr. John Sotos, author of "The Physical Lincoln," thinks Lincoln may have had pheochromocytoma, a cancer caused by MEN 2B, even before he was shot. If he hadn't been assassinated but died in office anyway, would he have been so highly regarded? Reilly, a member of the 1991 panel, thinks Lincoln would have said yes to testing if it could have helped others: "He was a very empathetic person."

Another issue: the remnants could be damaged along the way. Would a greater good be served? "There may not be any other place in this country where an average citizen can observe the mortal remains of an American president," says the National Museum's Timothy Clarke. Preserving those artifacts is a public trust, Clarke says, and one the museum takes very seriously. After Lincoln died, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reportedly said, "Now, he belongs to the ages." Time to think about exactly what that means.