An Astronomer Died of Burst Bladder

Astronomers conduct observational and theoretical research of celestial objects such as stars, galaxies, planets, comets, nebulae, and other cosmic phenomena. They use sophisticated telescopes and other instruments to collect and analyze data on the cosmos.

Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe was an irascible figure who lost his nose in a duel and feuded with two royal courts, but his work led to enormous contributions to science, including Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. He died a mysterious death, though, and it wasn’t a burst bladder.


Most people outside the field probably know a few A-list astronomers by name: Copernicus, Galileo and maybe Hubble, although these might be mostly recognizable for their roles in Back to the Future, Bohemian Rhapsody or being big-ass telescopes. Few, however, might recognize Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer who catalogued some 1,000 new stars and helped bring about the Scientific Revolution by noticing that some previously assumed unshiftable celestial objects actually shift, among other things. Brahe was also a bit of a character; it’s said that he kept a pet moose that got drunk at a dinner party, fell down some stairs and died, for example, and that he once lost his nose in a student fencing duel and wore a metal prosthetic the rest of his life.

But he might have been even more renowned if he hadn’t died at the age of 54. According to the team of scientists behind a new study, he did so because his bladder exploded. They say they’ve proved that the rumor is true with the help of a modern test and some 400-year-old accounts from Kepler, Brahe’s personal physician and other sources at the time. They note that the astronomer was invited to a banquet by Baron Peter von Rosenberg along with his mentor and student, Johannes Kepler. The men drank heavily and Tycho allegedly held his urine due to etiquette in the presence of his host, which ultimately led to bladder inflammation, a fever, delirium and – as the most popular account goes – a tiny, fatal bladder explosion.

If he had answered nature’s call, who knows what Brahe might have accomplished; he might have renounced his erroneous planetary model, done more crucial research or invented new measuring instruments, for instance. He certainly wouldn’t have been quite the same person without his nose, though; he was a flamboyant character who liked throwing elaborate parties and favored wearing wigs.

Despite the fact that he was such an important astronomer, many suspect that somebody wanted him dead, possibly even Kepler himself who would have been in a good position to do so given his distrust of Brahe based on their professional rivalry (and maybe because he had a competing theory about how the planets orbited the sun). No formal postmortem examination ever took place but the researchers believe that they’ve found a smoking gun: traces of gold in the astronomer’s hair, beard and eyebrows. That’s what the team interpreted as proof that he had a brass catheter, which was considered more effective than other types at preventing bladder infections. But even that doesn’t prove a murder conspiracy; a healthy bladder can only burst involuntarily, not because the muscles holding it shut give way. That only happens when something like a blockage or pelvic trauma occurs. For more on this fascinating story, check out this video from Durham University and the National Museum in Prague. (As a side note, it’s pretty easy to tell if someone has a broken bladder by examining their crotch area.)

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