When prominent Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in 1601 at age 54, the story arose that it was due to a burst bladder. Brahe had attended a banquet where he drank a lot, and would not leave to hall to pee, because that would be rude. Eleven days later, he was dead, presumably from the resulting infection. An analysis of Brahe's hair from a 1901 exhumation led to speculation that he instead died from mercury poisoning, either from his alchemy experiments or from intentional murder. Further analysis of his remains in 2010 indicated that he was not poisoned by mercury or other toxins. So what killed Brahe? A recent study concludes it was his high station and lifestyle. First off, his obesity.
Turning to historical literature, the researchers learned more about Brahe's symptoms in his final days, including coma and urinary retention, and scoured contemporary medical literature on hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS), which is common in people with type 2 diabetes. Symptoms of HHS include "signs of dehydration, weakness, legs cramps, delirium, and an altered level of consciousness that evolves not infrequently to profound lethargy or coma," the researchers write. "Such a syndrome appears as a possible cause of the symptoms Brahe endured during his very last days. This hypothesis is compatible with the known fatal outcome of his sudden illness, since mortality associated with HSS is between 10% and 20% in current clinical practice."
However, one final clue from historical records is Brahe's alcoholism, as he was notorious for drinking great quantities of wine and other alcoholic beverages. Alcohol abuse may cause serious metabolic disturbances, including alcoholic ketoacidosis, the researchers note. "This condition manifests itself suddenly and constitutes in modern days a fairly common cause of sudden, unexpected death in heavy drinkers" known as ketoalcoholic death.
A combination of obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism would have been fairly lethal in the 16th and 17th centuries, although limited to the upper classes who could choose their own food and drink. Brahe suffered from other medical conditions, too, which you can read about at Forbes. -via Strange Company