Horrifying History for Halloween – the first Mad Scientist?

We are familiar with the Mad Scientist archetype. He lives in a castle cum laboratory, browbeats his odd sidekick, has an eccentric appearance, enjoys unusual hobbies, makes outlandish pronouncements and comes to a mysterious end.

But where did this Mad Scientist persona come from? With Halloween coming up, we need to know – who was the first Mad Scientist?

May I suggest Tycho Brahe, the astronomer with a golden nose, drunken moose and mysterious death?

The Castle Conundrum


Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer (1546-1601), was given an entire island by King Frederick II for his laboratory.

This was a shock to the 50 families already on the island, especially when Brahe demanded they double their cultivation AND build his castle.

The building was dedicated to Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, and it was named Uraniborg, “The Castle of Urania.”

Brahe designed everything from the geometric layout of the garden, to a great mural quadrant designed to measure the arc height above the horizon.

He built a printing press and a paper mill, both among the first in Scandinavia,so that he could publish his own manuscripts, on locally made paper with his own watermark. He even created a system of ponds and canals to run the wheels of the paper mill.

His second laboratory on the island was, naturally, a basement! In Stjerneborg (“castle of the stars”), 16 furnaces blazed for conducting distillations and other chemical experiments. Only the domed roofs of the star-castle could be seen above ground level

From his labs, he observed the heavens, performed alchemical experiments, and had a army of around 100 students and artisans from 1576-1597.

first Mad Scientist – The Sidekick Syndrome

Image Source : Benjamin Breen, after Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, c. 1656.

Tycho’s sidekick was a little person called Jepp, who Brahe believed possessed psychic powers.

Jepp was his fool or jester, who sat at Tycho’s feet when he was at table, and got a morsel now and then from his hand.

Once Tycho had sent two of his assistants to Copenhagen, and on the day on which they were expected back the dwarf suddenly said during the meal:

“See how your people are laving themselves in the sea.”

On hearing this, Tycho, fearing they’d been shipwrecked, sent a man to the top of the building to look out for them. The man reported that he had seen a boat bottom upwards on the shore, and two men near it, dripping wet.

Apparently, when any one was ill at Hveen, and the dwarf gave an opinion as to his chance of recovery or death, he always turned out to be right.

Jepp the Clairvoyant Dwarf has his own Facebook page and is the inspiration of a young adult novel. On Facebook, his interests include telling the future, riding drunken elks, hiding Tycho’s nose, and being dead.

first Mad Scientist – The Appearance Apparatus

Lunch with Tycho Brahe

On 29 December 1566 Tycho lost part of his nose in a sword duel (in the dark) against his third cousin.

The duel was supposed to resolve an argument over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula

Though the two later made up, the duel resulted in Tycho wearing a prosthetic nose for the rest of his life.

The belief still persists that the nose was made of silver and gold.

Rather disappointingly, researchers found in 2012 that the prosthetic was “made out of brass“.

I like to think he wore different fake noses for special occasions!

first Mad Scientist – The Pet Persuasion

Image Source

Brahe had an unusual taste in pets.

In 1591, Brahe’s frequent pen pal Lantgrave Wilhelm asked about a mysterious animal he’d recently heard of called a “rix.”

Brahe responded that the rix didn’t exist – but had he seen a moose, for the astronomer just so happened to have owned a tame one.

Like a loyal dog, the moose followed him almost everywhere and lived inside his castle.

It also appears to have developed an unfortunate fondness for Danish beer. A nearby nobleman asked Brahe to send the prize pet to his castle to entertain some party guests.

As the dinner wore on, the creature grew increasingly tipsy until it eventually wound up roaring drunk! Brahe’s biographer Pierre Gassendi describes the mortal end of the moose :

“the moose had ascended the castle stairs and drunk of the beer in such amounts that it had fallen down [them]”

first Mad Scientist – The Prediction Proposition

Image source

Part of Brahe’s job was royal astrologer.

At the beginning of each year he had to present an Almanac to the court, predicting the influence of the stars on the political and economic prospects of the year.

And at the birth of each prince, he prepared their horoscopes, predicting their fates.

Brahe was inspired to make his own predictions (and burn his competition) after seeing the comet of 1577.

“Great alterations and confusion in religious and spiritual issues” could be expected, as well as “new sects and the alteration of customs with great evil’. The Jews would “suffer great persecutions’ as would the “pseudo prophets … monks, priests, and everything that goes with the Popish religion”.

Brahe also predicted that someone born in 1592 would bring great changes that would reach a peak in 1632. Possibly Gustavus Adolphus?

Among his predictions was bloodshed in Moscow and the imminent fall of Ivan the Terrible by 1583. He was a year out.

first Mad Scientist – The Poison Postulation

Circa 1600, Tycho or Tyge Brahe ( 1546 - 1601) the Swedish-born Danish astronomer. He lost most of his nose at the age of 19 in a duel and for the rest of his life wore a false silver nose. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source : Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The official (if ridiculous) explanation for Brahe’s 1601 death is that it was caused by a bladder infection, the result of needing desperately to go to the bathroom but refusing to for fear of breaching etiquette.

Johannes Kepler describes his death :

Holding his urine longer than was his habit, Brahe remained seated. Although he drank a little overgenerously and experienced pressure on his bladder, he felt less concerned for his state of health than for etiquette. By the time he returned home he could not urinate any more. Finally, with the most excruciating pain, he barely passed some urine, but yet it was blocked. Uninterrupted insomnia followed; intestinal fever; and little by little delirium

Investigations in the 1990s speculated that Tycho may not have died from pee, but from poison at the hands of a king or a rival. astronomer.

Brahe’s famous assistant (astronomer) Johannes Kepler was identified as a possible murder suspect

Even a cousin of Brahe was suspected of killing him for allegedly having an affair with the king’s mother!

Tycho’s body has been exhumed (twice!) to clear up whether he was murdered or not. The conclusion was that his death was likely indeed caused by a burst bladder, and not by mercury poisoning.

Just goes to show in Tycho Brahe’s life, the ridiculous and sublime ruled.

Enjoyed reading about the first Mad Scientist?

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