Was Tycho Brahe Poisoned? According to New Evidence, Probably Not

Foul play has been all but ruled out in the infamous death of one of history's most colorful astronomers.

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image: Circa 1600, Tycho or Tyge Brahe ( 1546 - 1601) the Swedish-born Danish astronomer. He lost most of his nose at the age of 19 in a duel and for the rest of his life wore a false silver nose.
Hulton Archive / Getty

Brahe's nose prosthesis is slightly visible in this circa 1600 engraving

For 300 years, the death of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe death was the stuff of tragicomic legend. Seated at a Prague banquet table in 1601, he consumed copious amounts of alcohol and soon badly needed to visit the restroom. But contemporary etiquette frowned upon doing so, and so Brahe remained seated for several hours, growing increasingly uncomfortable. For days afterward, he was in severe pain and had difficulty urinating. He died eleven days after the fateful dinner at the age of 54, ostensibly from both the uremia caused by his burst bladder and a fatal case of politeness.

Or so it seemed. When Brahe’s remains were exhumed in 1901, an autopsy found startling traces of mercury in hairs from his beard, which seemed so suggest that the famous scientist may have been poisoned. And historians had a ready suspect: Johannes Kepler, who at the time was working as Brahe’s assistant. Kepler’s firsthand account of his boss’s final days — which described symptoms that closely matched those of a bladder ailment — is history’s main source of information as to Brahe’s cause of death. The rights and use of Brahe’s data passed on to Kepler, who would go on to make a series of influential calculations about planetary orbits that would not have been possible without Brahe’s observations, according to the Galileo Project. All of this was enough to lead some to speculate that Kepler had killed Brahe out of ambition or professional rivalry. (Others, meanwhile, pointed their fingers at the Danish king, for allegedly having an affair with the king’s mother.)

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But as tantalizing as this 17th-century murder mystery sounds, new findings seem to indicate that it’s probably not true. A team of Danish and Czech scientists conducted new tests of Brahe’s clothing, bone and hair samples after his body was again exhumed in November 2010. In doing so, they concluded that there was insufficient mercury in his system to cause death.

“There was mercury in the beard, you will also have traces of mercury if you have a beard,” said lead investigator Dr. Jens Vellev, from Aarhus University in Denmarkto BBC News. “But the amount of mercury was as you see in people [alive today].”

“It is impossible that Tycho Brahe could have been murdered,” Vellev added. He also discounted the possibility death from a combination of other toxins: “If there were other poisons in the beard, we would have been able to see it in the analyses.”

The drama surrounding his death should not overshadow Brahe’s epic scientific achievements or wonderfully wacky life. He was the last major astronomer to work without the help of a telescope, operated his own printing press, trained many young scientists, wrote influential works like De Nova et Nullius Aevi Memoria Prius Visa Stella and laid the groundwork for major hypotheses that later scientists (like Kepler) would prove.

Brahe, who moved to Prague to serve as the Imperial Mathematician in Emperor Rudolph II’s court in 1599, lost part of his nose in a sword duel over a mathematic formula in 1566. He wore a brass prosthetic for the rest of his life. He was also fantastically wealthy and owned a pet elk that died after getting drunk on beer and falling down a set of stairs.

Brahe makes a good case for strangest historical death, but he doesn’t hold a candle to ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus. According to legend, Aeschylus died after an eagle dropped a turtle onto his shiny, bald head, having mistaken it for a rock.

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2 comments
2laarmond
2laarmond

I have always wanted to go to the Island that Tycho Brahe did his observations and data collection from.  I read a biography of Kepler, in which Tycho figured majorly in during the second half.  The book changed my life, helping me to understand data collection, mathematical model building,, and collegiality of shared love of mother nature, and collecting the information she shows.  While the Russians did this in hydrology, the Pat Robertson's of this world would consider hydrology 'socialistic and communist.'  This is pitiful.  But I frequently revel in Kepler's biography, and his search for the 'music of the spheres.;  The name of the biographer was Arthur Koesler.

RamaRatnam
RamaRatnam like.author.displayName 1 Like

The article states that "The rights and use of Brahe’s data passed on to Kepler". This is not quite correct. There is sufficient evidence to believe that Kepler simply walked off with the scientific data after Brahe's death, and before the family could secure it. In other words he stole the data. Brahe apparently never liked Kepler and looked down upon him because Kepler had rather lowly origins whereas Brahe was a nobleman. Kepler's removal of the data has been documented in a number of sources (see for example refs. 1, 2 below) and explicitly mentioned in several scientific talks (see for example ref. 3). Details on the fascinating relationship between Brahe and Kepler, including their colorful personalities may be found in refs 1 and 2. They are mandatory reading for anyone interested in the history of astronomy and physics in the period beginning with Copernicus and ending with Galileo.

1. Arthur Koestler (1959). The Sleepwalkers. Penguin Books. Relevant sections are in Part IV, pp. 222-427.

2. Kitty Ferguson (2002). Tycho & Kepler. Walker & Company, New York.

3. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1987). Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Relevant parts are in Chapter 2 from pp. 16-20.