The 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe did not die of mercury poisoning, according to a team of researchers who have analysed the scientist's remains.
The study started in 2010, as Brahe's remains were exhumed from his grave in Prague in a bid to investigate long standing rumors about the astronomer's untimely death.
Brahe died on Oct. 24, 1601, only 11 days after the onset of a sudden illness.
The first astronomer to describe a supernova, Brahe was apparently in good health and at the height of his career.
Not only had he catalogued more than 1,000 stars, he had also discovered a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia — a shocking finding in the state of knowledge of the time, as the heavens were thought to be unchanging.
Amazingly, Brahe made all these discoveries without a telescope, which was invented seven years after his death.
Rumors of death by mercury poisoning, whether deliberate or accidental, arose shortly after the astronomer's demise.
One theory speculated that Brahe was murdered by a distant cousin, the Swedish nobleman Erik Brahe, on the orders of the Danish king Christian IV, enraged over rumors that the astronomer, a father of eight, was having an affair with the king's mother.
Another theory identified Brahe's assistant, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, as a possible murder suspect.
It wasn't until after Brahe's sudden death that Kepler gained full access to a treasure trove of precise stellar and planetary observations that finally enabled him to come up with the laws of planetary motion.
In the past century, the mercury poisoning theory received apparent corroboration from repeated tests on samples of hair taken from Brahe's long moustache, which were removed from the astronomer's grave in another exhumation in 1901.
"To definitively prove or disprove these much debated theories, we took samples from Tycho Brahe's beard, bones and teeth when we exhumed his remains in 2010. While our analyses of his teeth are not yet complete, the scientific analyses of Tycho Brahe's bones and beard are," Jens Vellev, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who is heading the research project, said in a statement.
The Danish-Czech team measured the concentration of mercury using three different quantitative chemical methods.
"All tests revealed the same result: that mercury concentrations were
not sufficiently high to have caused his death," Kaare Lund Rasmussen,
associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark,
In particular, chemical analysis of the bones indicated that "Tycho Brahe was not exposed to an abnormally high mercury load in the last five to ten years of his life," Rasmussen said.
According to the researchers, the description given by Kepler of Brahe's death at the age of 54 is compatible with the progression of a severe bladder infection.
Another widely told — although not very credible — story reported that 11 days before his death, Brahe attended a royal banquet. There, his bladder burst since he was too polite to leave the table and go to the toilet.
During their investigation, the researchers also shed light on Brahe's famous prosthetic nose, reputedly made of gold and silver.
The astronomer lost part of the nose in a duel he fought in his youth in 1566 — the matter of dispute wasn't a woman, but an obscure mathematical point.
For the rest of his life, Brahe wore a metal prosthetic, always carrying a small box of glue to help when the new nose became wobbly.
"Surprisingly, our analyses revealed that the prosthesis was not made of precious metals, as was previously supposed," Vellev said.
"Traces of equal parts copper and zinc indicate that the prosthesis was made of brass," Vellev said.
Photo: Tycho Brahe in a 1500s painting. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.