Did you know that the case of an alleged murder by poisoning has been resolved after some 400 years?

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Did You Know…

…that an Alleged Murder by Poisoning Has Been Cleared Up After Some 400 Years?

On 23 October 1601, almost exactly 411 years ago, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in Prague following a brief, unexplained illness. Ever since, the scientist’s mysterious death was a source of wild speculation, ultimately leading to a scandalous accusation: it was allegedly murder… and the perpetrator was said to be Johannes Kepler! The possible motive? As his assistant, Kepler stood to gain from Brahe’s sudden demise. Their collaboration had been difficult, as Brahe had hardly given his helper any insight into his work. Before his death, however, the scientist ordered that Kepler conclude the scientific work in his own name. Kepler was given unlimited access to all of Brahe’s records, which ultimately provided the basis for the formulation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

In 1991, an analysis was conducted on hairs from Brahe’s mustache, rekindling the debate anew. Scientists had obtained the hairs during an exhumation in 1901. The examination revealed an elevated concentration of mercury. Did this indicate that Brahe had been poisoned? In 2005, Ann Lee and Joshua Gilder took up this theory in their controversial book, “Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries.”

However, Heiner Jaksch and his team at ZEISS, working together with Professor Rudolf Wegener and pathologists from the University of Rostock, have now succeeded in vindicating Kepler and dispelling suspicions of murder by poisoning. Using a ZEISS scanning electron microscope, the scientists carried out a far more precise hair analysis than was previously possible. Since the hair samples that had been obtained were in such good condition, it was possible to examine the tiny structures of the hair pores. It was revealed that Tycho Brahe’s hair did indeed contain deposits of mercury, and traces of lead and antimony as well. However, thanks to a special ZEISS detector and the subsequent microanalytical examination, it was proven beyond any doubt that Brahe had not ingested the mercury; it had instead acted on his body from the outside. The traces of mercury were due to his handling this substance during alchemical experiments or his use of an ointment containing mercury.

Mercury was commonly used as an ingredient in medicines in that age of rampant plague and syphilis, the latter of which was frequently treated using mercury compounds.


16 October 2012