Popular Science: How did Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) die? Science reveals possible causes of his death after more than 400 years
Tycho Brahe is renowned as the greatest astronomer of the renaissance era and if not about his discoveries, many people know at least something about his quite wild life, and his artificial nose (which he lost at young age in a student fencing fight following a dispute about the quality of his mathematical skills). However, up to now, four centuries after his death, nobody knew why he actually died, aged only 54 years.
In the historical accounts, we can find that after attending a banquet in Prague organized by Petr Vok, the Count of Rosenberg, he was not able to urinate and died after 11 days of pain, agony and insomnia. A kidney stone and ruptured bladder were identified as the most probable causes of his death already in his time. However, a conspiration theory believed that, in reality, Brahe was poisoned by his enemies or competitors, for example with mercury. In order to shed a bit more of light on this mystery, the remains of Brahe were exhumed from his grave in the Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague back in 1901 and for a second time in November 2010.
The latter exhumation was at the request of the Danish participant who, in the collaboration with Czech specialists, wanted to collect hair, bone and teeth samples to measure the mercury concentration and examine the level of bone mineralization, both to test the hypothesis of poisoning. Their analyses really confirmed the possibility of Brahe’s exposure to low mercury doses, as well as to other chemical elements, in the last weeks of his life. However, due to the low amounts, these findings were rather attributed to his own experiments in alchemy.
As the poisoning was ruled out by this research, the team focused on pathological bone changes, a reconstruction of his diet based on carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes and an estimate of his relative body fat based on the inner structure of his femoral shaft, which could reveal more information about the astronomer’s final physical condition and health, which was up to now not known from the historical sources.
They discovered certain level of degenerative spinal and other bone changes, highly probably caused by diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH), which is a disorder characterized by abnormal calcification and ossification of the soft tissues (ligament and tendon attachments) around the spine and other joints and is related to metabolic processes in the body. It is more common in men, usually older than 40 years and being more often found in certain populations, such as in the USA or in certain European regions (Northern Europe or Hungary).
As Brahe only lived in Prague for two years and spent the majority of his life in Denmark, the scientists estimated the dietary behaviour of Brahe (and his wife buried in the same grave) by comparing the data of the isotope composition of the bone remains of humans of all social classes, including e.g. the English king Richard III, and animals from northwest Europe (such as Denmark and Belgium) and ranging from the late medieval age to the 20th century, but also from Prague (15th-18th century).
Based on this comparison, the diet of Brahe and his wife corresponded to a prestigious class, with a high ratio of protein both from terrestrial and marine (and potentially also freshwater) animals. For the femoral analyses, measurements of Brahe’s skeleton were compared to 36 modern-day Danish men in order to classify the normal and obese categories. This comparison based on the tested sample showed with absolute reliability, that Tycho Brahe was obese, especially in his last years of life.
These findings add to previous discoveries, that DISH was rarely present even in the ancient populations around the world (even in Neanderthals or ancient Egyptian mummies). In today’s populations with a high standard of living, DISH becomes a widespread phenomenon and is accompanied by many health problems called civilization diseases, such as diabetes mellitus (II. type). However, based on the bone remains only, the presence of this disease cannot be proven retrospectively with certainty in Brahe.
DISH usually has no symptoms appearing for the affected persons, which might also have been the case of Brahe. Nevertheless, some associated changes could have affected the end of his life and cause his death. The scientist thus compared the description of Brahe’s health problems with symptoms associated with DISH and suggest that there was an association between DISH, diabetes and benign prostatic hypertrophy (and other complications accompanying them, such as a hyperosmolar hyperglycaemic state), that could have possibly caused the symptoms found in the historical sources (not being able to urinate, a kind of coma, pain).
Additionally, Brahe was known to be quite an extremely heavy drinker, which probably also added to the problems he was already having (obesity, metabolic issues) and might have caused, for example, alcoholic ketoacidosis, a condition, that provokes sudden death in excessive alcohol consumers.
Although the authors cannot provide an accurate diagnosis, they assume that civilization diseases associated with DISH and metabolic problems, and not poisoning, killed Tycho Brahe.
The study was conducted in collaboration with 11 Czech and foreign institutions (University of Durham, National Museum, Faculty of Science and 1st Faculty of Medicine of Charles University, Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of Copenhagen, Na Homolce Hospital, Nuclear Physics Institute, Institute of Chemical Process Fundamentals of the Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic, University of Southern Denmark, National Heritage Institute, University of Bordeaux and University of Aarhus). The research was coordinated by the Anthropological Department of the National Museum, where, in 2010, the actual analysis of the bone remains of the famous astronomer was performed.
Kacki S., Velemínský P., Brůžek J., Lynnerup N., Kaupova S., Lacoste-Jeanson A., Horák M., Povýšil C., Podliska J., Dragoun Z, Kučera J., Rasmussen K.L., Smolík J., Vellev J. 2018: Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis in Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601): palaeopathological assessment, stable isotopes analysis and body weight estimation. PloS ONE 13, 4: 1-32: e0195920.