Copernicus Rediscovered?

What are the chances of digging up the remains of the man who revolutionized astronomy in your local church? Doubts have swirled around the 2005 claim of a Polish archaelogical team that they had unearthed skeletal remains of the 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) [1]. A team of forensic experts, including the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Warsaw Police, examined the claims by investigating the bones and teeth of a 60 to 70-year old man found in Frombork Cathedral, Poland.

The task at hand was daunting, as outlined in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal article [2]. Copernicus died in 1543, at age 70, and was interred at Frombork Cathedral, which unfortunately has a large percentage of unnamed tombs. Scientists used facial reconstruction and comparisons with paintings, including a self-portrait, to narrow down the list of skeletons to one individual. They struck gold with the discovery of a seeming match. There was a forehead scar and evidence of a broken nose between one cranium and a key portrait. The next step involved DNA analysis. Here, the team was aided by Swedish researchers who retrieved hairs from a book annotated by Copernicus (on exhibit at Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala, Sweden). Genetic detective work enabled them to match two of the hairs to DNA segments from a well-preserved cranial tooth, thereby adding to the notion that the remains of Copernicus had finally been discovered.


Interestingly, the authors point out that Copernicus may have had blue eyes, even though early portraits of the astronomer show him with dark eyes. The authors explain their findings by noting that the painting technique, chalcography, used during the lifetime of Copernicus, does not reflect actual color. Therefore it is possible that science has now corrected an artistic impression reproduced in the ensuing centuries of dark eye color by showing that Copernicus, in fact, had light-colored eyes. The editorial commentary accompanying the article was favorable, with doubts mainly centering on the number of hairs and books tested before zeroing in on the Calendarium, the book which contained the jackpot hairs; however, the debate over different interpretations of the data continues in academic corridors.


Clearing up the mystery of the astronomer’s remains may eventually put him to rest, but he will remain immortal in our minds. Like Darwin, he ushered in the modern scientific era with the heliocentric theory, i.e. placing the sun at the center of our solar system and relegating the Earth to the position of another planet orbiting the sun. His findings did not endear him to contemporary critics, e.g. Scaliger, who noted the name of Copernicus next to the recommendation that “certain writings should be expunged or their authors whipped” [3]. Nowadays scholars and laymen applaud his discoveries.