Brahe myths are disproved, but secret remains buried

Scientists have disproved the prevailing myths that Tycho Brahe died of mercury poisoning and that his prosthetic nose was made of silver, but the question of how he died remains a mystery

November 16th, 2012 1:53 pm| by admin

On Thursday, a Danish-Czech team of scientists released the results of their two-year investigation into the death of famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who died suddenly in Prague over 400 years ago.

A chemical analysis of Brahe’s exhumed remains indicated that they contained a normal level of mercury, disproving the popular myth that Brahe died from mercury poisoning.

Furthermore, tests on his prosthetic nose, something Brahe chose to wear after it was cut off at the age of 20 in a fencing duel over a disagreement about a mathematical equation, indicated that it was not made silver, as previously believed.

“Tycho Brahe didn’t die from mercury poisoning and he hadn’t taken any considerable doses of medicine that he could die from,” Jens Vellev, an Aarhus University scientist who led the study, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “The investigations surprisingly show that the prosthesis wasn’t made from precious metals. The tests did reveal equal traces of copper and zinc, suggesting instead that it was made of brass.”

Despite two Brahe myths succumbing in one day, the shroud of mystery surrounding Brahe’s untimely demise while in exile in Prague continues to remain intact. But Vellev is leaning towards Brahe’s own written observations at the time.

“It states that Brahe attended a party at the [Holy Roman] emperor’s castle. They were drinking heavily and, out of politeness, Brahe refused to go to the toilet to relieve himself. He was struck with a fever and died 11 days later. That is essentially a urinary tract infection,” Vellev said, adding that he thought it doubtful that this could be proved using existing forensic technology.

It’s not the first time that scientists have attempted to get to the bottom of Brahe’s mysterious end. Brahe was exhumed for the first time in 1901 and scientists claimed to have found mercury in his hair, though they could not ascertain the amount at that time. This, though, contributed to the ill-deserved rumour of his mercury poisoning.

Originally named Tyge Ottesen Brahe, but adopting the Latinised name Tycho Brahe at the age of fifteen, Brahe was born in 1546 in his family's ancestral home of Knutstorp Castle, near Svalöv in Scania, the southern part of Sweden that at the time was a Danish territory.

Early on, Brahe became mesmerised with astronomy and became one of the brightest scientific minds of the Renaissance. In 1572, he detected a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia, a shocking discovery at the time, given the prevailing notion that the heavens were perfect and unchanging. The following year, he became the first person to describe a supernova.

In 1597, Brahe fled Denmark following a dispute with King Christian IV, never returning to his homeland and dying on October 24, 1601 at the age of 54 in Prague. His body is interred in a tomb in the Old Town Square near the Prague Astronomical Clock in the Czech Republic.

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