Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) was a Renaissance-era mathematician and astronomer, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, in all likelihood independently of Aristarchus of Samos, who had formulated such a model some eighteen centuries earlier.
The publication of Copernicus’ model in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), just before his death in 1543, was a major event in the history of science, triggering the Copernican Revolution and making a pioneering contribution to the Scientific Revolution.
Copernicus was born and died in Royal Prussia, a region that had been part of the Kingdom of Poland since 1466. A polyglot and polymath, he obtained a doctorate in canon law and was also a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. In 1517 he derived a quantity theory of money—a key concept in economics—and in 1519 he formulated an economic principle that later came to be called Gresham’s law.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in the city of Toruń (Thorn), in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. His father was a merchant from Kraków and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń merchant. Nicolaus was the youngest of four children. His brother Andreas (Andrew) became an Augustinian canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). His sister Barbara, named after her mother, became a Benedictine nun and, in her final years, prioress of a convent in Chełmno (Kulm); she died after 1517. His sister Katharina married the businessman and Toruń city councilor Barthel Gertner and left five children, whom Copernicus looked after to the end of his life. Copernicus never married and is not known to have had children, but from at least 1531 until 1539 his relations with Anna Schilling, a live-in housekeeper, were seen as scandalous by two bishops of Warmia who urged him over the years to break off relations with his “mistress”.
Toward the close of 1542, Copernicus was seized with apoplexy and paralysis, and he died at age 70 on 24 May 1543. Legend has it that he was presented with the final printed pages of his Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium on the very day that he died, allowing him to take farewell of his life’s work. He is reputed to have awoken from a stroke-induced coma, looked at his book, and then died peacefully.
Copernicus was reportedly buried in Frombork Cathedral, where a 1580 epitaph stood until being defaced; it was replaced in 1735. For over two centuries, archaeologists searched the cathedral in vain for Copernicus’ remains. Efforts to locate them in 1802, 1909, 1939 had come to nought. In 2004 a team led by Jerzy Gąssowski, head of an archaeology and anthropology institute in Pułtusk, began a new search, guided by the research of historian Jerzy Sikorski. In August 2005, after scanning beneath the cathedral floor, they discovered what they believed to be Copernicus’s remains.
The discovery was announced only after further research, on 3 November 2008. Gąssowski said he was “almost 100 percent sure it is Copernicus”. Forensic expert Capt. Dariusz Zajdel of the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled the features—including a broken nose and a scar above the left eye—on a Copernicus self-portrait. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70—Copernicus’s age at the time of his death.
The grave was in poor condition, and not all the remains of the skeleton were found; missing, among other things, was the lower jaw. The DNA from the bones found in the grave matched hair samples taken from a book owned by Copernicus which was kept at the library of the University of Uppsala in Sweden.
On 22 May 2010 Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’s remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral where part of his skull and other bones had been found. A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’s model of the Solar System—a golden Sun encircled by six of the planets.