Digging History

Famed astronomer Tycho Brahe literally had golden hair, study says

Tycho Brahe.

Tycho Brahe.  (SDU)

Silence is golden, the saying goes. But so, evidently, was the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, according to a recent study.

Brahe, who was born in 1546 and died in 1601, was a keen observer of the heavens. But he also was exposed to enough gold while he was alive for it to show up in tests of his hair— in fact, researchers found about 20 to 100 times the amount of gold in hair samples from Brahe’s corpse than is normal today. The hair came from his eyebrows, beard, and scalp, and the scientists also found evidence in his bones that he’d been exposed to gold.

The work was carried out by Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark. Brahe’s body was exhumed in 2010.

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“We found traces of gold in Tycho Brahe's hair, and we can establish that he was exposed to gold while these hairs were still on his body,” Rasmussen said, in a statement. He thinks that Brahe got the gold into his system because of his lifestyle— like the plates from which he ate.

“It may have been the cutlery and plates of gold, or maybe the wine he drank contained gold leaf. It's also possible that he concocted and consumed elixirs containing gold, or that he worked with alchemy,” Rasmussen said.

While gold was found in the highest amounts, the researchers also found evidence of other substances, like silver, arsenic, and iron, though not enough to poison the famed Renaissance astronomer. And while some had thought that Brahe had died from mercury poisoning, this research and past research shows that wasn’t the case.

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The researchers were even able to figure out, based on Brahe’s hair and how it grew, that his exposure to the gold and other elements actually decreased in a period of about two months before he died. That means that the astronomer might have been weak before he passed away, and unable to spend time in his laboratory.

“What Tycho Brahe died of is therefore still uncertain,” Rasmussen added. One theory has it that he died from an infected bladder.

Brahe is also known for his nose, or lack thereof. He lost part of it in a sword fight, and wore a prosthesis— that metal piece was made of brass, previous research showed, not silver, as had been thought.

The study about the golden hair was published in the journal Archaeometry.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger