16 January 2009

Was Tycho Brahe murdered?

Tycho Brahe was a world-renowned 16th century Danish astronomer and scientist whose curious death has been the subject of much speculation.
The 13th of October 1601 Tycho Brahes was invides together with a nobleman called Minckwitz to a supper at Baron von Rosenberg. Before they sat down at the table, Tycho did not let his water, as he otherwise usually did. During the dinner lots of wine was consumed, and Tycho noticed that his bladder was tense, and he realised that he soon would have to get up. Out of respect for the host, he waited however, but finally he had to get up from the table and get home. But his bladder had been blocked by waiting too long, and he could not let his water.
Traditional views of his voluntary urinary retention leading to a uremic death have been challenged by speculation (and evidence) that he was poisoned with mercury. His grave was opened in 1901 and no bladder stone was found. Fragments of his beard were examined in the 1990s and found to contain lead (probably environmental) and mercury - the latter at 100X normal and initially presumed to be a result of self-medication - though later studies (presumably along the length of the hair shaft) suggest the mercury was administered in a single dose.

New suggestions have been developed on how Brahe was murdered and who the murderer was.
Peter Andersen, a Strasbourg German Studies expert, has studied all individuals who were in contact with the Prague court astronomer. He suspects "the murder plot was hatched at the highest political level. Danish King Christian IV was the mastermind."

Andersen also says he's identified the killer: Erik Brahe, a Swedish count. Historians traditionally consider him a "friend" and "affectionate cousin" of Tycho Brahe. He was in Brahe's house shortly before the astronomer's death.
More details at Der Spiegel. Later this year the astronomer's vault will be opened, the body will be exhumed, and further forensic studies will be conducted.

Addendum 2012:  The most recent forensic studies do not suggest murder by mercury or other detectable poison.
“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 Denmark, to 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.”

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