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Myths - How did Tycho Brahe die?


On the 13th October 1601 Tycho Brahe attended a banquet, where the drink
flowed freely. It is said that Tycho Brahe needed to empty his bladder, but
that he felt it would be impolite to leave the table. But he became ill and had to return home. He suffered from fever, giddiness and periods of unconsciousness. Delirious with fever, he is reported to have said several
times: Ne frustra vixisse videar - May I not have lived in vain. On the 24th October he took farewell of his family and died peacefully. He was buried with great ceremony at the Teyn Church in Prague, where a marble monument was erected in 1604.

The grave at Teyn Church was opened in 1901. It was feared that his remains had been removed in 1620, which had been the fate of all the other non-Catholics who had been buried there. But this was not the case. In the grave there were two coffins containing the remains of Tycho Brahe and his wife, who died in 1604. Tycho Brahe never mentioned his wife, Kirsten Jörgensdatter, in any of his writings or letters. She was probably the daughter of a clergyman from Kågeröd, and as a commoner she was not considered to be his lawful wife. Tycho had three sons and five daughters by her. None of Tycho's surviving relatives ever returned to Denmark.

An analysis of Tycho Brahe's hair showed high levels of mercury. It was assumed therefore that he had died of poisoning. Mercury was used for gold-plating instruments. Tycho and his assistants must have inhaled large quantities of mercury vapour both then and in connection with chemical experiments. Mercury was also an ingredient in many of Tycho's medicines. It was thought that all these factors could have contributed to his death. But
later analyses of hair from his contemporaries who, like Tycho Brahe, had been embalmed have shown similar high levels of mercury. Experts suggested that it was more likely that an enlarged prostate gland had led to his death.


In the summer of 1996, the University of Lund carried out a PIXE analysis of hair from Tycho Brahe (PIXE = Particle Induced X-ray Emission). With the PIXE method it has been possible to see not only what substances are present in the hair but also their precise location. If the mercury came from the embalming process, the mercury would be found on the outside of the hairs. If Tycho Brahe had been slowly poisoned by chemical experiments or the gold-plating process the mercury would be inside long sections of the hairs. What the analysis actually has shown is that only one of the hairs contained mercury. This hair was the only one with the hair follicle still attached, and the mercury was present close to the hair follicle. It was inside the hair, which means that it came through the body via the blood. It is calculated that the mercury concentration rose very quickly, in just 5-10 minutes, and that it sank just as fast. This and the mercury concentration's distance from the hair-root, show that Tycho Brahe must have ingested a large dose of mercury about 20 hours before his death. Unfortunately, the analysis is unable to explain the presence of mercury in Tycho Brahe's body. He might have taken it himself as a medicine for his illness. He might have
been deliberately poisoned. It is impossible to know for sure. It can only be concluded that he mercury poisoning might have caused his death. The PIXE analysis have been questioned by other scientists.