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    Great Thinkers Who Met Tragicomically Gruesome Ends
    By Garth Sundem | January 30th 2009 03:45 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Garth

    Garth Sundem is a Science, Math and general Geek Culture writer, TED speaker, and author of books including Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the...

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      Tycho Brahe was a sixteenth-century Danish, astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, most famous as the mentor of Johannes Kepler. In 1566 after a rousing night of drinking, Tycho lost a good part of his nose in a duel. Tycho was also the patron of whom he believed to be a clairvoyant dwarf and kept a tame moose, which died after consuming an enormous quantity of beer and falling down the stairs. Popular wisdom holds that Tycho Brahe died from an infection caused by a severely strained bladder, gained while trying to avoid leaving the table in the middle of a formal banquet. Other accounts hold that Kepler murdered Tycho with a mercury draught.
      In 1626, the philosopher and essayist Sir Francis Bacon was trying to prove that freezing preserves food. His experiments included stuffing a chicken with snow. Not long after said experiment, he died of hypothermia.
      In 1687, composers commonly conducted their music by banging a staff on the floor of the podium. In a fit of musical exuberance, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally pierced his foot and later died of gangrene.
      Hypatia of Alexandria is considered the first important woman in mathematics. After being accused of heresy, she was killed by a mob wielding seashells, which used said shells to peel the flesh from her body. Her remains were then burned. Some say this marked the official end of the Hellenistic era.
      The Greek philosopher Chrysippus is known as the second founder of Stoicism. His death in 207 BC is widely believed to have been the result of intense laughter sustained after feeding his donkey a significant quantity of wine and then watching it try to eat a fig.
      Girgori Rasputin was adviser to Nicholas II of Russia, offering advice, mystic predictions and faith healing. After being stabbed in a failed assassination attempt, Rasputin’s intestines were sewn into his body. The next assassination attempt was more serious. First, Rasputin was given a massive dose of cyanide (he was largely unaffected); next, he was shot (again, largely unaffected, he managed to strangle to death his shooter); additional assassins arrived, shooting Rasputin three more times, clubbing him, wrapping him in a sheet and throwing him through a hole in an ice-covered river. The cause of death was hypothermia.

    Comments

    Garth Sundem
    I shoulda asked: anyone have recommendations for more?

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    Hank
    Rasputin is key - I can't tell you how many times, when prompted by the wife if I was catching a cold, I would proclaim "Are you kidding?   I have the constitution of Rasputin", but then retire to my den for 3 days with a set of Family Guy DVDs and a coffee maker.    As a precaution.   And I haven't died.   

    But since you asked:

     Li Po (701-706), greatest poet in Chinese history, drowned in the Yangtze River when he fell out of the boat while trying to prove he could embrace the reflection of the moon in the water.

    Hans Steininger, of the world famous longest beard, died because there was a fire, he forgot to roll up his beard, tripped, died.  Was he a famous thinker?  He must have been.  I stroke my chin when thinking and I have no hair there at all.   Imagine if I had a 5 ft. beard.

    Jack Daniel, famous whiskey distiller, came to work early one morning, couldn't open his safe, gave it a kick and injured his toe, which developed an infection that killed him - that's why I never go to work early.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I'd also add Marie Curie (1867 - 1934) to the ironic death list. She likely died from aplastic anemia - thanks to radiation exposure - because no one knew about the deadly effects of ionizing radiation. Apparently she used to carry test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark. A fun fact: in 1921, President Harding, on behalf of the women of America, presented her with one gram of radium in recognition of her service to science. She actively promoted use of the element for healing, but ironically radium - over one million times more radioactive than the same mass of uranium - is believed to have led to her death.
    Garth Sundem
    Thanks, Hank. Thanks, Becky! Nice additions. Any more? C'mon there's gotta be a million of these floating around among the copious neurons of ScientificBlogging readers.

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    Becky Jungbauer
    There's always William Wallace - check out the description in the "capture and execution" section. In the ancient world, Socrates and Archimedes. Boltzmann is another candidate.
    Hank
    Was William Wallace a great thinker?    He was a Scot, his only thinking was how best to kick someone on the ground after he head-butted them.    I know, one of me ancestors was with him.  As you might expect, he was the only humor in the place, as witnessed here:

    rholley
    Thanks for remembering Boltzmann; to him I would add Cantor. (I've linked their MacTutor biographies.)  Boltzmann suffered from depression and committed suicide, and Cantor spent much of his later years in institutions.

    It is perhaps impossible now to estimate to what extent their plight was caused by the hostile reception their ideas received (Boltzmann in statistical physics/thermodynamics, Cantor in the mathematics of infinity: both were ahead of their time.)  Other factors could have been their natural constitution, or even were they driven that way by the strength and implications of their own ideas?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    rholley
    If you want a grisly life story read that of the Uruguyan author Horacio Quiroga (1878 – 1937).  I came across him through reading his story El Techo de Incienso (The Roof), about a local official in the backwoods of Argentina whose life was so taken up with repairs to his roof that he failed to carry out his proper duties.  I first came across it in English translation in Spanish Stories (Dover, ISBN 0486253996), and you can read the original in this  e-book.

    It is a constant reminder to me not to go adrift in the same way.  And if you want any justification for including this in Scientific Blogging, it's as a warning to those working in or administering science departments not to behave like Orgaz, the protagonist of the story.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Hank
    That's what he gets for asking a science audience.    He wants comically gruesome and prominent people, like Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency slipping and falling, biting his tongue when he fell, and dying as a result.   


    Garth Sundem
    Hank, please tell me you're Googling these and don't actually know them off the top of your head...

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    Hank
    I couldn't remember Li Po (though the spelling seems obvious now) and the site I found it on had a list of weird deaths, like Hans, so that helped.

    Everyone knows that's how Jack Daniel died!  Are you a Rye man instead or something?

    And if you think I am a fount of trivial knowledge, you will gasp in awe of Robert Olley.