When I wrote a valedictory piece in another place, before starting my Vita Nuova, I mentioned that one of the many books I might never now read was a biography of Tycho (properly Tyge Ottensen) Brahe (1546–1601), by John Louis Emil Dreyer (1852–1926). The things I knew about Brahe at the time could have been written on a pinhead, and mostly involved his false nose. But now I have read Dreyer on Brahe, and am somewhat better informed – enough so that I need to move on to more recent works about this remarkable man, in the hope that they will provide more information about his equally remarkable sister.
Dreyer himself was also fairly remarkable. According to the ODNB, this son of a Danish lieutenant-general was driven to his life’s work in astronomy precisely by reading a biography of Brahe at the age of fourteen. In 1869 he entered the university of Copenhagen to study logic, mathematics and astronomy, in which he was notably successful.
He was asked in 1874 to take on the role of astronomer at the famous observatory built by the third earl of Rosse at Birr Castle in Ireland, to finish some of the earl’s own observations and prepare them for publication. After and because of success in this work, he moved to the university of Dublin’s observatory, and in 1882 he became director of the Church of Ireland’s observatory at Armagh, succeeding Thomas Romney Robinson.
While wrestling with problems making observations with outdated equipment (and a declining income as a result of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland), Dreyer found the time to produce A new general catalogue of nebulae and clusters of stars (1888), which updated the work of Sir John Herschel, the works of Brahe in fourteen volumes (1913–26), and The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel (2 vols., 1912), as well as the 1890 biography of Brahe. After a considerable amount of frustration when senior posts in Britain and Ireland were given to less well qualified people, Dreyer was enabled by support from the Carlsberg Institute to retire to Oxford and work as a ‘private scholar’; he also served on the council of the Royal Astronomical Society and was President in 1923 and 1924.
One of the things Tycho Brahe was most famous for (apart from the nose, which after an exhumation in Prague was discovered to be made of brass, to replace a chunk lost in a duel in his giddy student youth), was the community of scholars he established on an island, then Danish and called Hven or Hveen, now Swedish and called Ven. He had been given land and funding by King Frederick II of Denmark, who was a keen supported of the arts and sciences, and possibly thought he owed the Brahe family something, as Jørgen Thygesen Brahe, the uncle who raised and educated Tycho, died in 1565 of a disease contracted while saving the king from drowning.
The estate of Uraniborg, built between 1576 and 1580, was, in modern terms, more like a research institute than a university – you didn’t go there to learn but were recruited because you already knew stuff and could make a contribution. And it appears that Sophie Brahe was Tycho’s first research assistant. She was several years younger than her brother (though her birth date is uncertain because it derived from a horoscope he cast for her, which gives dates in either 1556 or 1559), and the youngest of ten children. Although they had not been raised together, Tycho says he taught her horticulture and chemistry – she learned astronomy for herself, from books, paying for Latin works to be translated for her.
She took part in his observations of what we now know to be the birth of a supernova on 11 September 1572, and a lunar eclipse on 8 December 1573, and was a frequent visitor to Uraniborg after its foundation.
It is claimed that both she and Tycho met opposition from their noble and wealthy relatives for their unseemly scientific pursuits; if so it must have been a relief to them when Sophie married a wealthy man, Otto Thott, in 1576, and had a son, Tage Ottesen Thott, in 1580.
He husband died in 1588, and Sophie managed his estate at Trolleholm on behalf of her son, using her horticultural knowledge to lay out gardens, and using plants to treat the illnesses of her local community, as well as creating horoscopes alongside her brother. So far, so good – but then, unfortunately, Sophie seems to have fallen in love.
The good news is that Erik Lange was a noble by birth and an associate of her brother. The bad news is that he was obsessed by alchemy, had spent all his money on it, and had to leave the country to avoid his debtors, so that although they became engaged in 1590, they did not marry until 1602: at the wedding, she was wearing stockings with holes in them, and his clothes had to be returned to the pawn shop after the ceremony.
By this time the Uraniborg idyll had come to an end: King Christian IV had succeeded his father Frederick at eleven years old in 1588, and his regency council resented the large sums of money lavished on Tycho and his work. When Christian came of age, he showed complete indifference (war being more his thing), and Tycho left the island and the country in 1597, settling first in Germany and then in Prague, where his patron was the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (the one who looked like a collection of vegetables and had a pet lion called Ottokar).
Sophie and Erik lived for a time in Eckernförde (now in Germany, then in the Danish duchy of Schleswig), but by 1608 Erik was in Prague, where he died in 1613. Although she seems to have been at war with her family – she believed money rightfully hers was being withheld from her – she was able at this stage to finance repairs to the church at Ivetofta (now in Sweden), where Frederick II had granted her the nearby manor of Årup in 1587. (She gave the church an altar, pews, a pulpit and a font, all of which survive today.)
One story is that she lived there from 1618 and intended to be buried there, but in fact she seems to have settled in Helsingør (Elsinore) in Zealand, Denmark, where she died in 1643 and was buried in the chapel of the Thott family. In Helsingør she turned to genealogy, producing a 900-page manuscript on sixty noble Danish families (now held at the university of Lund) in 1626.
However, she seems not to have given up on horticulture and healing.
This picture, painted in 1691 by the Dutch Pieter van der Hulst (1651–1727; better known for his flower paintings) portrays Live Larsdatter, born in 1575, and thus a super-centenarian at her death in 1698. She is believed to have been taught medicine by Sophie, and was apparently famous for her ‘miracle plasters’.