Nicolaus Copernicus: “Old, old blue eyes”

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, October 22, 2009

Like Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), renowned Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) had blue eyes, according to genetic tests that identified his remains. This paints a much different picture than the ones I grew up with. Researchers announced the findings last November and published them in July. They suggest that Copernicus most likely had blue eyes, fair skin, and light hair color.

In 2005, a team led by Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski found an incomplete skeleton under the St. Cross altar of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Frombork, on Poland’s Baltic coast. Despite the lack of a lower jaw, the skull provided enough clues for identification.

Tests showed that it belonged to a man who died between the age of 60 and 70 (Copernicus died when he was 70). Furthermore, the man had suffered a broken nose (Copernicus had a crooked nose because of an accident he suffered as a child). The skull also featured a cut mark above the left eye (Copernicus’ self-portrait shows a scar above his left eye).

Of course, a DNA test would provide conclusive proof, but where do you get Copernicus’ DNA? Why, from a library, of course! The researchers found just what they were looking for in the astronomy reference book, Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler (1452–1531).

They found the book — which Copernicus owned for years — in the Museum Gustavianum at Uppsala University. And among the book’s pages they found 9 hairs. The researchers found usable DNA on four of them. And, guess what? Two were identical to each other and to the profile from the skeletal remains recovered from the St. Cross Altar tomb. The researchers concluded that the remains from the St. Cross Altar tomb are those of Copernicus.

Copernicus also was probably fair-skinned with light hair. How do I know that? Because the team’s genetic analysis also found a variation in a gene called HERC2, which mainly occurs in people with blue eyes. Recent studies have associated the HERC2 variant with lighter hair color and lighter skin.

So, although there’s another “blue eyes” in town, I think Sinatra would be OK with it. After all, who better than Copernicus, the man who replaced Earth as the center of the solar system with the Sun, could more appropriately boast, “I did it my way”?

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.
Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.


Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

Find us on Facebook