The search for Nicolaus Copernicus

A search for an ancient book, an old hair, and a missing grave

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

Mike Selby

In 2005, archaeologists were trying to solve one of Poland’s biggest mysteries, one the country’s citizens have been trying to solve for centuries: Where had they buried Copernicus?  At the time of his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus had yet to become the household name he is today. At the time, nobody thought to record where his body had been buried.

Copernicus spent his adult life working as an administrator at the Catholic diocese in Northern Poland. Tradition stated he was buried underneath the church he worked at, but no one knew for sure.

When archaeologists began to dig in 2005, they discovered what they hoped were his bones. They were from a 70-year-old male (the same age of Copernicus when he died), and the skull had a mark which corresponded with a scar Copernicus was reported to have.

Unfortunately, their conclusions were not definite.  While the bones they uncovered still possessed viable DNA, Copernicus had no living descendants with which to compare it to.

Part of the reason Copernicus was put to rest so haphazardly was that his book, ‘On the Revolution of Heavenly Spears,’ wasn’t published until after his death.  His (correct) idea that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of our solar system didn’t become a heretical work and shatter scientific thought until years later.

Today, 600 original copies of this book still exist, and astronomer Owen Gingerich has examined each and every one (it only took him 30 years). Gingerich’s purpose was to see what people first thought of Copernicus’ radical theory, as most of the original owners wrote down their thoughts in the book’s margins.

Knowing of his research interests, a rare book dealer from Paris asked Gingerich if he had ever heard of a library named the House of Mary Magdalene. He had not, but the book dealer told him that an earlier Copernicus work, ‘First Account,’ had come on the market, featuring a House of Mary Magdalene library stamp. Since he couldn’t afford the book’s 1.5 million dollar price tag, Gingerich put it out of his mind.

Years later, while perusing various works owned by Johannes Kepler at Wroclaw University, he noticed most of Kepler’s books featured the Mary Magdalene stamp. He immediately requested to see the University’s copy of Copernicus’ ‘First Account,’ but it could not be found. He told the university he knew they wouldn’t find it; it had been stolen and was currently for sale in Paris. Interpol later recovered it.

While he was busy alerting Wroclaw of their book theft, Gingerich heard about the search for Copernicus’ DNA.  A fellow astronomer had suggested a search amongst Copernicus’s personal library (at Uppsala University in Sweden), hoping to find a bloodstain somewhere amongst the pages.

While this seemed unlikely, Gingerich knew of a book — Johannes Stoeffler’s ‘Great Roman Calender’—which Copernicus had owned. Between two pages which Copernicus had scribbled down his own astronomical thoughts, four of his hairs still remained.

In 2010 the Polish government was pleased to announce the DNA from the hairs matched the DNA from the uncovered bones. And unlike his original one, Copernicus’ new funeral was a massive global event, complete with a large granite monument…hopefully ensuring no one will forget where he is buried.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public LIrary

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