Famous Astronomers: The Life of Copernicus

The quaint town of Thorn was more than two centuries old when Nicolaus Copernicus was born there on the Feb. 19, 1473. Because this town laid on the frontier between Prussia and Poland, it had the commodious waterway offered by the river, making it a place of considerable trade. 


Copernicus, the astronomer whose discoveries make him the great predecessor of Kepler and Newton, did not come from a noble family, as his father was a tradesman. Chroniclers are, however, careful to tell us that one of his uncles was a bishop. We are not acquainted with any of those details of his childhood or youth that are often of such interest in other cases where men have risen to exalted fame. It would appear that the young Nicolaus, Copernicus’ Christian name, received his education at home until he was deemed sufficiently advanced to be sent to the University at Cracow.

Although Copernicus’ university education must have been in those days of a very primitive description, he seems to have availed himself of it to the utmost. He devoted himself more particularly to the study of medicine, intending to be a doctor. The tendencies of the future astronomer were, however, revealed in the fact that he worked hard at mathematics, and, like Galileo, he enjoyed painting and obtained some measure of success practicing this art.

By the time Copernicus was 27 years old, he had apparently given up the notion of becoming a doctor, resolving to devote himself to science. Instead, he taught math and appears to have acquired some reputation. His growing fame attracted the notice of his uncle the bishop, at whose suggestion Copernicus took holy orders. After doing so, Copernicus was appointed to a canonry in the cathedral of Frauenburg where he retired.

Possessing somewhat of the ascetic spirit, Copernicus resolved to devote his life to work of the most serious description. He eschewed all ordinary society, restricting his intimacies to very grave and learned companions and refusing to engage in conversation of any useless kind.

In addition to the discharge of his theological duties, Copernicus did medically treat the poor as he continued researching astronomy and mathematics. His instruments for the study of the heavens seem to have been of a very meager description. He arranged apertures in the walls of his house so that he could observe in some fashion the passage of the stars across the meridian.

Copernicus and Astronomy
The intellectual slumber of the Middle Ages was destined to be awakened by the revolutionary doctrines of Copernicus. It may be noted, as an interesting circumstance, that the time at which he discovered the scheme of the solar system coincided with a remarkable epoch in the world’s history. The great astronomer had just reached manhood at the time when Columbus discovered the new world.

Before Copernicus’ research had been published, the orthodox scientific creed averred that the earth was stationary and that the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies were indeed real movements. Ptolemy had laid down this doctrine 1,400 years before.

The Ptolemaic theory was not seriously questioned until the great work of Copernicus appeared. No doubt others before Copernicus had vaguely surmised with more or less plausibility that the sun, not the Earth, was the center about which the system really revolved. It is, however, one thing to state a scientific fact. It is quite another thing to be in possession of the train of reasoning, founded on observation or experiment, by which that fact may be established.

Copernicus, by a strict train of reasoning, convinced those who would listen to him that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Copernicus died on May 23, 1543. He was buried at the Cathedral of Frauenburg.


Ball, Robert S. (1895). Great Astronomers.