There are two bits of historical trivia that people like to cite about the 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The first is that he lost part of his nose when it was cut off in a duel in 1566 — the dispute was over a mathematical formula, not a woman as was usually the case, although the argument occurred at a wedding banquet — and had a metal fake nose made to replace it, which he wore strapped to his head in public.
The second is that he suffered a very strange death. According to a first-person account by Johannes Kepler — then a protege of Brahe’s — Brahe was dining with the Danish emperor, and badly needed to relieve himself midway through the meal. But it would have been rude to leave the table before royalty. Back home, he found it was both difficult and painful to urinate. His bladder burst and he died a few days later – perhaps the only person in history to die from good manners.
OR DID HE? In a plot twist straight out of a classic murder mystery, there have been rumors over the last century or so that the famed astronomer was actually murdered. The suspects included Brahe’s distant cousin, Erik Brahe, who supposed carried out the deed on behalf of King Christian IV of Denmark — apparently he suspected Tycho Brahe of sleeping with his mother.
The second possible culprit was Kepler himself — yes, the dude who went on to formulate the laws of planetary motion. Kepler, the theory goes, desired fuller access to his mentor’s extensive catalog of astronomical observations, all of which he inherited upon Brahe’s death. Glory! Riches! A place in the historical pantheon of the greatest astronomers of all time! Who wouldn’t be tempted to slip their mentor a lethal dose of mercury for that?
Yes, it seems incredibly far-fetched, but the rumors are based on a 1901 autopsy of Brahe’s exhumed remains, which found traces of mercury in hairs taken from his beard — and no evidence of kidney stones, the ostensible cause of death recorded by the 16th century physicist who examined Brahe’s body immediately after his death.
But a new analysis by Danish and Czech scientists indicates that this legend is just too good to be true, and that Brahe likely did indeed fall victim to uremia and a burst bladder. As for those toxic levels of mercury, it’s possible they came from Brahe’s metallic nose.
Mercury, or quicksilver, as it is commonly known, is a transition metal, one of five elements that are liquid at standard room temperatures. Frankly, it’s quite lovely as elements go, its beauty belying its deadly nature — a veritable l’element fatale.