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

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Did you know ...

... that the case of an alleged murder by poisoning has been solved after 400 years?


On 23 October 1601, almost 411 years ago to the day, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in Prague following a brief, unexplained illness. Ever since, the scientist's unexplained death has been surrounded by wild speculation, ultimately leading to a scandalous accusation: It was murder. And the culprit was Johannes Kepler! The possible motive: As his assistant Kepler stood to gain from Brahe's sudden death. 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 name. Kepler gained 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 carried out on hairs from Brahe's moustache – rekindling the debate. 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 from Carl Zeiss, 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 scanning electron microscope from Carl Zeiss, the scientists carried out a far more exact hair analysis than was previously possible. As the hair samples which had been obtained were in good condition, it was possible to examine the tiny structures of the hair pores. It emerged that Tycho Brahe's hair did indeed contain mercury deposits – as well as traces of lead and antimony. Thanks to a special detector from Carl Zeiss and the subsequent micro-analytical examination, it was proven beyond any doubt that Brahe had not taken the mercury; rather, it had acted on his body from outside.

The traces of mercury were due to his handling of the 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 frequently being treated with mercury compounds.

October 17, 2012