Here’s What Might Have Really Killed Tycho Brahe, The Weirdest Astronomer In History

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Tycho Brahe is as famed for his 16th-century astronomical achievements accurately describing planetary motions as he is for his extraordinarily bizarre life. This Danish nobleman, just as an example, once lost his nose in a duel before getting it replaced by one made of brass.

His death in 1601 has, rather appropriately, been the subject of considerable controversy and debate too. The most popular theory was seemingly confirmed by exhumation tests in 2010, which suggested that he perished due to a burst bladder. Now, as recounted in a PLOS One study spotted by Forbes, his demise was perhaps instead influenced by a grim combination of obesity, alcoholism, fused bones, and diabetes.

The team’s paper – spearheaded by anthropologists at Durham University and the National Museum in Prague – recalls how the astronomer was only 54 when he died, following 11 days of sudden illness.

While attending a banquet at the Count of Rosenberg, “he had allegedly held his urine longer than was his habit due to etiquette,” they explain. Testimonies of colleagues and doctors at the time elucidate how strong pain led to bladder inflammation, a fever, delirium, and eventually – as the most popular account goes – a tiny, fatal explosion.

The team, wary of the vagueness of the historical testimonies of the moments leading up to this death, wanted to take another look. Conducting a paleopathological analysis on Brahe’s remains, they also reconstructed his diet; this was based on carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis, which indicated what food he may have eaten, as well as an estimate of his relative body fat based on the form of part of his femur.

It appears that he ate far more meat and fish than your average Joe at the time, which made him clinically obese. He was also suffering from the painful fusion of several vertebrae, a condition known as diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH).

The sort of artificial nose Brahe wore. Science Museum London/Mrjohncummings/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0

Historical literature analyses also suggested that the symptoms of his acute illness, including his delirium, coma, and the failure to urinate, were common in those suffering from hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS); this occurs in people with type 2 diabetes who are experiencing inexorably rising blood glucose levels. As noted by Diabetes UK, it’s potentially life-threatening.

At the same time, it appears that Brahe was too much of a fan of the tipsy juice, and may have been suffering from alcoholic ketoacidosis (AKA). This metabolic disturbance is fine if treated, but if not can lead to rapid death in those with a history of alcohol dependence.

Putting it altogether, the team explain that “although a definite and specific diagnosis cannot be established,” their study nonetheless “points to today’s civilization diseases often associated with DISH and metabolic syndrome as the possible cause of death of Tycho Brahe.”

It seems fitting that his death was as complex and extravagant as his quixotic life was. This was a man employed by both the Danish King (who gave him a private castle on an island) and, after a period of exile, the Holy Roman Emperor.

At one point, he employed a dwarf whom he thought had psychic abilities. He also once owned an elk, who apparently got so drunk while meeting a nobleman on Brahe’s behalf that he fell down the stairs and unceremoniously perished.

A somewhat conspiratorial theory suggested that he may have been suffering from mercury poisoning, whose symptoms mirror that of the illness leading up to his death. This was highly circumstantial at best, and exhumations revealed no worryingly elevated levels of mercury in his remains.

Perhaps strangest of all, though, was that these rumors first arose during William Shakespeare’s 1603 play Hamlet, said to potentially be inspired by Brahe’s life – and death.

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