Copernicus: Not Just an Astronomer
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources



Most people know Nicholas Copernicus as the father of modern astronomy. He altered astronomy forever by declaring the sun the center of the universe, not the earth. His heliocentric theory had great repercussions, not only in the world of science but also with society in general. However, astronomy was not Copernicus' only achievement. He also played a role as physician, political leader, economist, map maker, and calendar reformer.

Historical Background

Poland first entered the Renaissance during the lifetime of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). Great Renaissance style art was beginning to appear in Cracow, Polandís capital. Classics such as Aesopís Fableís were translated into Polish. Also, writers had begun to produce great literature in the native languages.  Wonderful literature was produced by Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski and Jan Kochanowski. What was even more influential during the Polish Renaissance, however, was the religious tolerance. The majority of Poland was Roman Catholic. Officially, the king Sigismund I opposed the spread of Protestantism which occurred in the 1520ís. Still, no one faced the radical treatment, such as burning at the stake, as was often seen in Western Europe. This tolerance attracted intelligent men of science and art from all over Europe. This led to a great pool of genius and a wealth of diversity. In addition, differences in opinion were "fought not with sword and fire but with the pen and the printed word." Nothing was censored and people were not persecuted for dissention. Overall, the Renaissance set up an era that was extremely conducive to the spread of knowledge and the development of new ideas.

Research Report

Nicholas Copernicus was born into an established, prominent family on February 19th, 1473, in Thorn, Poland, present-day Torun.  The family of his mother, Barbara Watzenrode, was from a line of respected alderman in Thorn.  Not much is known of Copernicus' father, Nikolaus Koppernick.  (Copernicus is the Latinized form of the Polish name Koppernick.)  except that he too was appointed as an alderman after the death of his father-in-law and continued to hold the office until his death in 1483.  Nicholas, his son, at the age of ten, was then greatly influenced by his uncle, Lukas Watzenrode. His uncle, Bishop of Ermeland, made sure that Copernicus was well provided for.  Copernicus, like his uncle, was greatly educated.  He most likely began his education at a grammar school "Partikular" at Kulm, a town north of Thorn.  At the age of eighteen, Nicholas and his brother went to study at the University of Cracow.  Here, Copernicus studied mathematics and optics.  When he returned home four years later in 1495, his uncle had him appointed as Canon at the Cathedral of Frauenburg.  This position kept Copernicus financially worry-free for the rest of his life.  His considerable income allowed him to focus his interest in science and astronomy.

In 1496, Copernicus left Poland to study civil and canon law in Bologna, Italy.  Here, Copernicus developed a friend and a mentor in the famous professor of mathematics, Dominicus Maria Novara.  Copernicus became Novara's assistant in his astronomical studies and first acquired the basic knowledge of astronomy.  Novara also shared his critical ideas of the current view of the universe, formed by Ptolemy in the second century.  In 1500, Copernicus traveled to Rome and lectured on the current astronomical problems.  In 1501, Copernicus received permission to continue his studies in Padua, Italy.  There, he finished his law studies and began studies in medicine.  Finally, in 1503, Copernicus received a doctorate of canon law from Ferrara University in Italy.

In 1503, Copernicus returned to Poland and worked as a physician under his uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Although Copernicus was openly grateful for all the assistance that had been provided by his uncle, Copernicus ended his position as physician after seven years, probably due to disagreements over his uncle's autocratic behavior. Copernicus then moved to Frauenburg to resume his position as canon at the Cathedral of Ermeland. It was at this residence, in the upper room and in a nearby tower, that he continued his astronomical observations. As canon, Copernicus became widely known and respected. He held numerous offices and positions in the Church and was one of the most responsible and dedicated officials of the time. He was considered to be a leading administrator in the area from 1516 to 1523, the high time of most of his political activity.

Copernicus was not only well known in politics, but also in economics. He played a major role in the reformation of the Prussian monetary system. Because each province had their own mint and coined their own money, trade between the provinces was becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, Copernicus proposed a method to reform the currency system in 1517. However, due to political problems, the idea was put on hold until 1526. Copernicus then compiled his ideas into a report and assisted with the debates on the topic at the Marienburg diet. Although his suggestions were not part of the final solution to the currency problem, Copernicus was still seen as one of Prussian's greatest economists of the time.

During his years as canon at Frauenburg, Copernicus also continued to practice medicine. In fact, his contemporaries knew him not as an astronomer, but rather as a physician. Although he did not advance the field in any significant way, his good disposition and helpful advice helped him cure many patients and led him to a wonderful reputation.

Astoundingly, Copernicus' role as canon, monetary reformer, and physician were not enough for him. Copernicus also was skilled in map drawing. By 1510, he had drawn a map of all of Prussia. His map of a small coast town was even used to settle a dispute in court in 1519.

Furthermore, Copernicus involved himself in the revision of the calendar. For years, people had know that the Julian calendar no longer held. Mathematicians and astronomers began to look for solutions. Copernicus therefore took part in the Fifth Lateran Council's commission on calendar reform in 1515. It was therefore no surprise that the solution proposed by mathematician Erasmus Reinhold used many of Copernicus' astronomical calculations.

Copernicus first started studying astronomy seriously under the instruction on Novara. Under Novara, Copernicus started building some of his own theories. However, most of his ideas were not formulated until he returned to Poland and began his observations from his residence at the Cathedral of Frauenburg. Copernicus made extensive observations of astronomical motion using only the naked eye. (Telescopes would not be invented for another century.) These observations led Copernicus to form his heliocentric theory. Copernicus was not the first astronomer to believe that something was wrong with the Ptolemaic system. He was however the first to completely reject it. Copernicus finished the first draft of his theory sometime between 1507 and 1515. He gave several handwritten copies of his writings to close friends in order to collect their thoughts and reactions to his theory. Copernicus rejected the Ptolemaic view that the earth was the center of the universe and that spheres containing the other known planets and stars surround the earth. Instead, Copernicus believed that the sun was the center of the universe, and the earth, just like the other planets, revolved around the sun.

This theory fit Copernicus' observations much better than the Ptolemaic system. Furthermore, this system could explain the planets' retrograde motion, something that had been particularly problematic for most astronomers. His theory also coincided with the proper calendar. He stated that the earth rotated once daily and revolved around the sun annually. Finally, Copernicus' theory gave an order to the known planets and stated that the planets furthest away from the sun had the longest rotation.

Copernicus' dear friend Bishop Thiedemann Giese and a mathematics professor and Copernicus' pupil, Joacim Rheticus both encouraged him to publish his ideas. Unlike popular thought Copernicus did not want to publish his ideas because he was afraid of the Church's reaction, but because, as a perfectionist, he never thought it ready to be published. Finally in 1541, Copernicus gave in and placed Rheticus in charge of supervising the printing. However, when Rheticus was unexpectedly called away in 1542, he left the printing with Andreas Osiander. Osiander added a preface to the piece, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. His preface, written as if it were Copernicus himself, stated that the theories were really just mathematical hypothesis. This undermined Copernicus' original intentions and outraged Rheticus and Giese.

Printing finished just in time for Copernicus to receive a copy of the book on his deathbed. After a hemorrhage and a stroke, 70-year-old Copernicus passed away on May 24th, 1543.

Copernicus was not the first to develop a heliocentric theory. Greek Aristarchus of Samos described such a system in Sand Reckoner in the third century BC. Still, people found it easier to believe the geocentric theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The geocentric theory fit most of man's rough observations. Also, as in that theory, humans were the center of the universe, the theory greatly fed man's ego. This was one of many reasons that, for the most part, people rejected Copernicus' heliocentric theory.

Copernicus' theory did not fit with the traditional Aristotelian way of thinking. More importantly, it clashed with numerous Bible passages. The Jesuits were some of the fiercest protestors of the theory with Christopher Clavius leading the way. He used the Bible and Church teaching to oppose and downplay heliocentricism. Despite the fact the De Revolutionibus was dedicated to Pope Paul III, the book was still placed on the Church's Index of Forbidden Books in 1616.

Even though the Church formally condemned Copernican theory, there were still some scholars who proudly followed the theory. A Carmelite theologian, Paolo Antonio Foscarini, wrote a book that stated the theory did not conflict with any scripture passages. Even more people admired the work for its brilliant math calculations. The theory was not widely accepted until two centuries later after Galileo, with the use of the telescope and advanced physics ideas helped to prove the theory.

Historical Significance

The life and work of Copernicus had far reaching effects. Copernicus' role as a physician, administrator, and reformer all greatly enhanced Prussia and Poland. His work encouraged political unity and economic growth. Still, today, Copernicus is most well known for his work as an astronomer. His heliocentric theory challenged society to change the way they think. Copernicus' work inspired other astronomers such as Bruno, Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler. Although not all of Copernican theory holds true today, his work allowed other astronomers to advance the field quite rapidly. Furthermore, as the theory was gradually accepted towards the late 1600's, it forced people to realize that they are but a part of nature and not superior to it.


Armitage, Angus.  Copernicus:  The Founder of Modern Astronomy.  New York:  Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1957.
Biskup, Marian and Jerzy Dobrzycki.  Copernicus: Scholar and Citizen.  Warsaw:  Interpress Publishers, 1972.
Kesten, Hermann.  Copernicus and his World.  New York:  Roy Publishers, 1945.
Mizwa, Stephen P.  Nicholas Copernicus: 1543-1943.  New York:  The Kosciuszko Foundation, 1943
Rosen, Edward.  Copernicus and his Successors.  London:  The Hambledon Press, 1995.
Schmauch, Hans.  Nicolaus Copernicus. trans. Helen Taubert.  Goettingen:  The Goettingen Research Committee, 1954.

Web Resources -- clear history of astronomy before Copernicus as well as nice links to other astronomers -- a few good links to other influential astronomers as well as a description of how Copernicus's theory forced a change in society's perspective -- excellent biography with good explanation of Copernicus's heliocentric theory -- rejection of the Copernican theory using Bible passages; also gives quotes to illustrate contemporaries' reactions -- slide show of gradual acceptance of heliocentric theory -- wonderful diagrams and concise explanation of Copernicus's heliocentric theory

This page was written and researched by Rebecca Jansen, Marquette University, 2001