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Archeologists Exhume Remains Of Tycho Brahe

November 15, 2010

A team of scientists from around the world has exhumed the remains of a famous 16th century Danish astronomer in the hopes of determining, once and for all, the cause of his sudden death.

Tycho Brahe, who was born in December 1546 in Knutstorp Castle, Scania (then part of Denmark, but now part of Sweden), died in 1601 from a rumored bladder infection–caused, according to urban legend, by his unwillingness to commit a breach of etiquette by leaving a court banquet to use the restroom facilities.

Since then, however, tests on hair and mustache follicle samples obtained during a 1901 exhumation have shown that his system contained “unusually high levels of mercury, leading to a theory of mercury poisoning, even possible murder,” according to a Monday report by Karel Janicek of the Associated Press (AP).

Those tests, conducted in 1996, inspired Aarhus University Medieval Archaeology Professor Jens Vellev and colleagues to seek and eventually obtain permission from authorities to exhume the body once more from the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn in Prague, Czech Republic.

Nine years ago, Vellev first contacted church and state officials for the go-ahead to conduct another investigation, using modern-day equipment–including a CT scan and advanced X-ray technology–to analyze hair and bone samples to determine the true cause of death.

“As a man of science, he’s important for the whole world,” Vellev told Janicek, adding that he hoped their research will establish that the high mercury levels were a result of pain medication Brahe was taking, not foul play. “Perhaps, we will be able to come close to an answer, but I don’t think we will get a final answer to that question.”

Vellev’s team has until Friday to exhume Brahe’s remains, and in addition to the cause of death, they also intend to study the late astronomer’s skull. According to Janicek, Brahe “had part of his nose cut off during a duel with a fellow nobleman as a student and it was replaced by a metal plate.” Vellev told the AP that they hope to find out what metal was used in the construction of the plate.

Many credit Brahe with helping establish some of the foundations of ancient astronomy. In 1572, he observed a supernova and used the term “nova” for the first time in reference to a new star. He founded multiple observatories, lectured on astronomy, prepared astrological charts, and even predicted weather patterns during his lifetime.

The accuracy of his star catalogues has drawn praise from stargazing experts, and in honor of his life’s work, craters on Mars and the Moon and a planetarium in Copenhagen bear his name.

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