So maybe history's craziest astronomer wasn't murdered after all

Illustration for article titled So maybe historys craziest astronomer wasnt murdered after all

There are larger-than-life scientists, and then there's Tycho Brahe. The 16th century Danish astronomer lost part of his nose in a duel, sent a drunken elk around to entertain nobles, and died under mysterious, embarrassing circumstances. Well... mysterious no longer.


The official explanation for Brahe's 1601 death is that it was caused by a bladder infection, the result of needing desperately to go to the bathroom but refusing to for fear of breaching etiquette. Since that story seems, well, kind of ridiculous, another theory has emerged — namely, that Brahe was poisoned by one of his enemies. The two main suspects are the young Danish king Christian IV, who decidedly did not share his father Frederick II's enthusiasm for Brahe's work, and legendary astronomer Johannes Kepler, who supposedly killed his mentor in order to gain access to his closely guarded data.

Both are interesting enough theories that Brahe's body has been exhumed multiple times in search of proof. Samples taken from a 1901 exhumation revealed trace amounts of mercury were found in Brahe's hair, according to analyses performed in the 1990s. That might well support the poisoning theory, and it was enough to justify one last exhumation by a team of Danish and Czech scientists in 2010. The researchers did indeed find mercury in Brahe's beard — but, as Dr. Jens Vellev of Denmark's Aarhus University explained to BBC News, it wasn't nearly enough:

"There was mercury in the beard, you will also have traces of mercury if you have a beard... But the amount of mercury was as you see in people [alive today]. It is impossible that Tycho Brahe could have been murdered. If there were other poisons in the beard, we would have been able to see it in the analyses."


What's more, there's at least a bit of circumstantial evidence to support the burst bladder theory, as Johannes Kepler's description of Brahe's death completely fits the progression of a severe bladder infection, suggesting the story is real enough. At least this is the rare instance where the death that doesn't involve foul play is barely any less ridiculous than the one that does.

Previously: The crazy life and crazier death of Tycho Brahe, history's strangest astronomer

Via BBC News. Image via the Tycho Brahe Homepage.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter


I will never forget the day my mom said, "Well, good manners never killed anybody." And I said, "What about Tycho Brahe?" Got her GOOD. :)