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Nicolaus Copernicus  

19 February 1473 (Toruń) – 24 May 1543 (Frombork)

a remarkable Polish astronomer – the creator of the heliocentric theory, mathematician, economist, doctor, lawyer.


His father Nicolaus, a merchant from Krakow, moved to Torun in 1456. His mother Barbara Watzenrode came from a well-off family in Torun. Copernicus had three siblings: an elder brother Andrzej and two elder sisters: Barbara and Katarzyna. After his father’s death (1483), his uncle Lucas Watzenrode, who was a canon in the Wloclawek Chapter and later the bishop of Warmia, became guardian to young Nicolaus.


Copenicus attended the parish school of St. John in Torun, and then was sent by his uncle to the school in Wloclawek. From 1491 to 1495 he studied at the University of Krakow, which was then the centre of humanist thought and astronomic studies. He studied both mathematics and classical disciplines, as well as astronomy. In 1496 his uncle Watzenrode sent Nicolaus and his brother to study Law at the University of Bologna. Nicolaus undertook Greek studies and astronomy (Copernicus’s further research in the latter discipline must have been inspired by his contacts with an Italian astronomer Domenico Maria de Novara). He returned to Poland for several months, and then left for Italy again to pursue Medicine at Padua while continuing to read Law. In 1503 he was awarded the Doctor of Canon Law degree at the University of Ferrara. 

 Work and public activity 

In the years 1506 – 1512 he mainly remained in Lidzbark Warminski, where he acted as a doctor and Watzenrode’s secretary. Copernicus and his uncle attended local congresses of the Prussian Estates in Malbork and Elblag (1504 – 1507). In 1509 he published his Latin translation of the Letters written by Theophylactus Simocattes, a Byzantine historian. A year later he became cannon and moved to Frombork, the seat of the Warmia Chapter. He conducted his astronomic observations and wrote his major work (1515 – 1530). Copernicus also drew a map of Warmia, Royal Prussia and the Wisla Delta. In the years 1516 – 1519, and in the middle of 1521, he was promoted to Administrator of the Chapter property in Olsztyn. During the war between Poland and Teutonic Kinghts (1520 – 1521) he defended the castle in Olsztyn. In the years 1521 – 1523, when Copernicus was reappointed General Administrator of the Chapter, he held a position of the Commissioner for Warmia. His public activity gradually led him to finances. He drafted a currency reform in 1517. After it had been presented in the Sejmik (local parliament) in Torun (1519) it was extended and delivered in a treatise on the minting of coinage. Copernicus defined the rules of monetary reform based on the improvement and unification of a Polish and Prussian coin. He formulated an economics law, according to which “bad money drives out good”, later referred to as the Gresham – Copernicus law. 

 Scientific activity in the field of astronomy 

The first scientific results of Copernicus’s research were signalled as early as at the time of his stay in Italy. In 1500 he delivered several lectures in Rome. He mentioned the discovery of the “New Astronomy” which reflected his different opinions on the planet structure and movement. The outline of the heliocentric theory was only given in 1510, in a paper entitled the Commentariolus (It was not published, though. The copies circled entire Europe, and only two of these were found as late as in the 19th century). 

Major work 

The full account of the heliocentric model of the Solar System took Copernicus approximately twenty years to complete. The work was created in Frombork and contained a lecture on astronomy. It stated that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun. Copernicus argued, furthermore, that the planets also circle the sun. Georg Joachim van Lauchen, known as Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Wittenberg, who came to Frombork in 1539, encouraged Copernicus to publish his research results. Rheticus published the shortened copy entitled Narratio Prima in Gdansk in 1540. A year later the full account of the work (including six volums) was published in Nürnberg. Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, who became responsible for editing the text, made considerable changes to the original work as to convince a reader of a hypothetical character of the heliocentric theory whose publication would not collide with the former imagination of the world frame. Without Copernicus’s consent, Osiander removed Copernicus’s Preface and inserted his own (unsigned) Letter dedicating it to Pope Paul III. The work appeared in 1543, and was entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). It is unknown what title was initially given by Copernicus as the original does not have a title page. The title, though, may have been De Revolutionibus, indicating the movement of all the planets, together with the Earth. Other editions of this work were published by Rheticus in Basle (1566), by Müller from Göttingen in Amsterdam (1617), and in Warsaw (1854) (the edition included Polish translation and the Preface written by Copenicus), and by the Copernican Society in Torun in 1873. Overthrowing existing views on the world, Copernicus’s work triggered off numerous religious and ideological disputes. His theory was subject to severe criticism from the church authorities, mainly protestant. The Catholic Church condemned and banned De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium until 1828. However, since the turn of the 16th and 17th c. Copernicus’s theory gained more and more supporters. G. Bruno, J. Kepler and Galileo were among notable defenders. The Earth’s orbital movement was confirmed through the discovery of light aberration by J. Bradley in 1728. The breakthrough caused by the heliocentric theory revolutionised all the branches of science providing foundations for the development of modern civilisation. 

Based on: Encyklopedia PWN (Warszawa, 1983) and the collection of biographies on Copernicus found in the Internet