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The death of Tycho Brahe

The body of famed astronomer Tycho Brahe was dug up twice (in 1901 and 2010) to find out what killed him. The conclusion: he died of excessive politeness.

Tycho Brahe
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tycho Brahe made some great advances in astronomy: for example, he proposed a model of the solar system in which the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth, but the Moon still revolved around the Earth. His so-called “Tychonic system” was a little off because he held that the Sun rotated around the Earth too, but that’s not such a big error because the observable local effects of both systems – Sun rotating around the Earth and Earth rotating around the sun – are mathematically identical.

(Side note: I know that technically the Earth and Sun revolve around each other, but let’s not be sticklers, yeah?)

Funnily enough, Brahe held that the Sun rotated around the Earth because one consequence of the alternative explanation seemed so implausible: if the Earth rotated around the Sun, that would imply that the other stars were unbelievably far away and excessively enormous. Now, of course, we know that the stars visible in the night sky are unbelievably far away and excessively enormous, but Brahe had no way to know that.

Anyway, Brahe died under suspicious circumstances in 1601. He went to a banquet in Prague and subsequently had great difficulty urinating. Brahe died just eleven days later. At the time, his death was attributed to kidney stones. In 1901, Brahe was exhumed to look for evidence of those kidney stones, but none were found.

There were also theories that he had been poisoned, either accidentally or deliberately. If it was accidental, it would have been by his own hand: Brahe was an ardent alchemist and played with mercury quite a lot. If it was deliberate, the prime suspects were his assistant Kepler (later a famed astronomer in his own right) or his cousin (at the bidding of the King of Denmark, because of rumours that the king’s mother had been fooling around with Brahe). I suspect people were just reading too much into Hamlet.

Anyway, to test these theories poor Brahe was dug up once again in 2010 to test his beard hairs for poisoning. And the answer was a resounding “no” – Brahe was not poisoned.

What most likely killed him was politeness. That banquet that he attended? He drank a lot, but refused to get up and relieve himself because it would have been a serious breach of etiquette. Basically, he held it in for too long and did something to his kidneys or bladder – and that’s what killed him eleven days later. Brahe summed up his end this way:

He lived like a sage and died like a fool.

Categories: Early modern history Earth & sky Europe History Places Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

2 replies

    1. Haha, oh that’s amazing! “the animal had been sent to Landskrona Castle, where Tycho’s niece’s husband kept it for some days, until unluckily the elk one day walked up the stairs into a room, where it drank so much strong beer, that it lost its footing when going down the stairs again and broke its leg, and died in consequence.”

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