Symbolic farewell

By Lidia Smentek

Editor’s Note: This article by Lidia Smentek is a sequel to her earlier discussion of Copernicus’s remains in a Viewpoint column in the May, 2009 APS News.

Recently Wiesław Bogdanowicz of the Polish Academy of Sciences, together with his team, wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Taking all data into consideration, i.e., the identical genetical profiles in the skeletal remains and reference hairs along with the other anthropological and archeological information, we conclude that the skeletal remains derived from the St. Cross Altar tomb at Frombork Cathedral are those of the great Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. This is the end of a search that has lasted for at least 2 centuries . . . 

Is it really the end of the search?       

The reference hairs mentioned above were found by chance in the books stored in Uppsala, Sweden, since they were taken as a war trophy in 1626 from Frombork, Poland; they previously belonged to Copernicus while he was a canon there. The same sequence of mtDNA was found in the hairs and bone remains, catalogued anonymously as 13/05, found in the Frombork cathedral.

However, since mtDNA is inherited only from the female line, the genealogical tree of Copernicus leads to the conclusion that three persons who were associated during their lives with the cathedral in Frombork inherited the same sequence of mtDNA. These are: bishop Łukasz Watzenrode (brother of the astronomer’s mother), Andrzej Kopernik (astronomer’s brother) and Nicolaus Copernicus. It is therefore impossible to distinguish the genetic material of these three persons.

Copernicus’ brother’s burial place has not been definitely established, but after he had officially moved from Rome to Frombork in 1506, he still spent the majority of time back in Rome; and it is speculated that he died there. It is known for sure, however, that Bishop Łukasz Watzenrode and Copernicus were buried in the Frombork cathedral!

One does not need to be an expert to see that the only conclusion that may be derived from the match of mtDNA of both samples (hair and bones) is that they belonged to either the same person, or to two different persons who were related via the maternal branch.

As a consequence, even assuming that somehow it is possible to prove that the hairs found in Uppsala are indeed those of Copernicus (which has not been done), the match of their mtDNA with those of 13/05 does not answer the question whose remains were found, the astronomer's or his uncle's, since the two men share the same genetic code. The mystery of Copernicus’ grave is still NOT solved! How was it possible then to announce to the world that Copernicus’ grave has been found?

More than a century lapsed between Copernicus’s death in 1543 and the middle of the 17th century, when the so-called Swedish flood covered Varmia (the district of Frombork), and Copernicus’ library was stolen. In the context of these historical facts, a new question arises:  did no one during these 100 years read or look at these books stored now in Uppsala? Is it not possible that the hairs and the remains 13/05 belonged to a different canon, a successor of Copernicus, or another bishop, who was studying the books, and eventually was also buried in the cathedral?

As a consequence the probability that indeed Copernicus’s remains have been found is lower than 33.3%, even assuming that the genetic analysis was performed with 100% reliability.

On the 19th of February 2010 in Toruń, Copernicus’ birthplace, in the same cathedral where he was baptized, the sarcophagus with the remains was guarded by a delegation of different professions and ages, including representatives of the young generation. There were flowers, candles, coat of arms and Gregorian hymns in the background. A crowd paid respect to Copernicus, the pioneer of a new intellectual era. The remains were on their way to Frombork Cathedral to be finally put to rest forever.

Now we know that it was only a symbolic farewell organized for Copernicus by citizens of Toruń; just a symbolic good-bye from his town.

Lidia Smentek is at the Institute of Physics, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland and the Department of Chemistry, Vanderbilt University.

1 W. Bogdanowicz, M. Allen, W. Branicki, M. Lembring, M. Gajewska and T. Kupiec, Genetic identification of putative remains of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, PNAS 106, 12279 (2009). 

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Editor: Alan Chodos

October 2010 (Volume 19, Number 9)

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