Tycho Brahe- Death by Manners
He was born Tyge Ottesen Brahe on December 14, 1546 in Skane, Denmark, now Sweden, to parents from the Danish nobility. When he was two, his uncle, Jørgen Thygesen Brahe, took him from his parents and raised him to adulthood. Brahe later wrote “without the knowledge of my parents [he] took me away with him while I was in my earliest youth to become a scholar”. Perhaps this was a fostering arrangement, however, it was strange that his parents made no move to get back their young son. One story says that the Brahe’s had promised a son to Jørgen Thygesen Brahe to raise and had not kept their promise, leading him to simply take the child. No matter what the situation, young Tycho was given an excellent education with private tutors and at the University of Copenhagen and Leipzig. At first he studied law as per his uncle’s instruction, but the solar eclipse of August 21,1560 kindled a passion for astronomy. He was fascinated that the time of eclipse could be predicted so accurately. However, more progress could be made if the measurements and observations were more accurate. He gained access to the astronomy tower and refined the traditional instruments as well as creating his own new ones to methodically gather accurate astronomical data.
After graduation, Brahe traveled Europe and studied at the Universities of Wittenberg, Rostock, and Basel. It was in Wittenberg in 1566 he got into a spot of trouble. Debate of a mathematical theory with another Danish nobleman, Manderup Parsbjerg, turned ugly. They argued over the matter at least twice, but neither had the resources to prove the solution. So since Google had not been invented yet, the two fought a duel over who was correct and Brahe lost a portion of his nose. For the rest of his life, Brahe wore a prosthetic nose. Green marks on his bones suggest it was made of copper, but it is possible he had gold or silver ones made as well. The prosthetic was attached to his face with glue. This incident sparked an interest in alchemy and medicine.
In 1570, he returned to Denmark, ostensibly to study law. However, astronomy kept calling him. He wrote a treatise on the new star, which was a supernova, in the constellation of Cassiopeia he observed. This was an achievement as he was working without a telescope, which would be employed by later astronomers like Galileo. He was convinced astronomy would live or die on accurate measurements, and to this end convinced King Frederick II to give him the island of Hven in the Sont near Copenhagen. There he created the observatory of Uraniburg, and began to perfect his instruments. At Uraniburg, Brahe ran his own printing press, built his own instruments, and with the help of his sister Sophia, made and recorded nightly observations. He took proteges from all over Europe and began training them in his precise method of observing.
His home life was unusual to say the least. Brahe commanded 1% of the wealth of Denmark and lived accordingly in a castle. He had a fool to entertain him that he was convinced had psychic powers, and a tame elk that drank beer. In fact, the elk died after getting drunk and falling down the stairs. Brahe never officially married, but lived with a minister’s daughter with whom he had eight children.
After the death of King Frederick II, Brahe’s influence waned. He fell out with Frederick’s successor Christian VI, Brahe left Denmark and moved to Prague. It was there in 1601, he attended a banquet and because of court etiquette did not excuse himself to urinate. He held it through the entire night, and then contracted a bladder or kidney ailment because of it. Eleven days later, he died in a delirious state crying he hoped his life was not in vain. Death by manners, and that seemed to be that.
However, in 1990, Brahe’s body was exhumed and examined. The doctors found traces of mercury in the bone and hair samples. It is not known if the mercury exposure was over a long period of time. If so, it could be he ingested mercury through his experiments or some other benign way. However, a large one time dose could mean the great astronomer was poisoned. But why? There are two competing theories.
Theory one supposes that the falling out Brahe had with King Christian VI was over the fact he was having an affair with Christian’s mother. There are contemporary rumors that allege this and Brahe was the personal astrologer to Frederick II. These rumors were well known enough to inspire a popular play set in Denmark that featured infidelity. Anyone heard of a little play called Hamlet? The diary of Count Eric Brahe, Tycho’s cousin and a courtier from Denmark, has been found recording meetings with Christian’s brother Hans. Eric was visiting his cousin at the time of his death. There is no recorded evidence of Hans requesting Eric to knock off his cousin, but it is suggestive.
The second theory is that Brahe’s protege Johannes Kepler murdered him for his vast encyclopedia of astrological observations. Brahe guarded these most secretly, not letting even his prized students get a peek at the extensive data, including a catalog of thousands of new stars. There was a lot of confusion over who got Brahe’s effects, so Kepler spirited the data away. Kepler himself admits to taking advantage of Brahe’s sudden death. He said, “I confess that when Tycho died, I quickly took advantage of the absence, or lack of circumspection, of the heirs, by taking the observations under my care, or perhaps usurping them.” Not exactly ethical, but a motive for murder?
Alas for murder fans, a second medical investigation in 2012 determined that the traces of mercury were only found on the outer scales of samples of Brahe’s beard. They ruled that this was probably from mercury dust from his alchemical experiment and that Brahe died of a burst bladder. Let that be a lesson, dear readers, and don’t martyr yourself to etiquette. On that note, please excuse me….