The Strange Life and Death of Tycho Brahe

If you’ve heard of Tycho Brahe, it is probably his achievements in astronomy that you are familiar with.  His observations of the positions of stars and planets, all made without a telescope, were critical for his successors in later establishing that the sun was the center of our solar system. As accomplished as he was, though, his private life was perhaps the most interesting thing about him.

It all started in 1548, when Brahe was two years old. At this time, his wealthy, noble uncle stole him from his parents. Oddly, his mother and father were fine with this, so Brahe ended up spending a large portion of his childhood with his strange uncle.

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Aside from a precocious interest in astronomy, Brahe’s life was fairly normal until 1566. At age 20, he got into an argument about a math formula with a Danish nobleman. The spat ended in a duel, during which Brahe lost part of his nose. He spent the rest of his life wearing a copper prosthetic nose.

Brahe inherited a fortune from his uncle/foster father. This gave him the means to indulge his every whim, which he did. He kept a tame pet elk that he sometimes kept indoors. Sadly, the elk become drunk on beer while visiting another nobleman. He then fell down a set of stairs and died.

He also hired a dwarf to act as a jester. This in itself was not strange, but Brahe’s insistence that this man was psychic was definitely a little odd. He believed the jester could see the future, but this did not stop him from making the man live underneath the dining room table most of the time.

As a noble, Brahe also had access to royalty. He took advantage of this and had an affair with the queen of Denmark. This affair led many historians to believe that he died from poisoning at the hands of the queen’s son, Christian, who did not appreciate Brahe sleeping with his mother. He died after an illness he had appeared to contract at a dinner for King Rudolf II of Hungary, and some believed he was poisoned with mercury at this party at the instigation of Christian.

To see if Brahe was murdered, his strange story continued after his death. In 2010, his body was exhumed and tested for traces of mercury and other poisons. It was discovered that he was not poisoned at all, but instead died from a much more boring cause: a bladder infection.

Apparently, he drank too much at the royal dinner, but he couldn’t leave the table to visit the toilets because the king was still seated. He would have violated etiquette by leaving the table before the king. He held his urine for so long that he gave himself a severe bladder infection. He died in agony 11 days later, which was not a very fitting end for such an extraordinary person.

In an interesting twist, Brahe’s death might have inspired Shakespeare to write his famous play, Hamlet. His work about murder, intrigue, and illicit love affairs at the Danish royal court bears some resemblance to parts of Brahe’s life and untimely end. This has not been proven, though.

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