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Across the Great Plain of Poland, Part 2: Saints and Science


A journey across Poland's plains leads the Andersons to the hometown of Nicolaus Copernicus, who offended the church and endangered his own life when he discovered that the earth revolved around the sun.

We should have heard of Gniezno because it’s on our Insight map, as is our stop after that, Torun, the birthplace of Copernicus, but places we are not staying at perhaps seem smaller on the map.


We are not all that impressed by how many saints the church has given the world, especially when the padre who so brutally “converted” the indigenous American Indians on our Pacific Coast was recently canonized over their protests. But our interest in the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Wojciech is not at all in its religion but in its bronze doors cast in 1170. How often can you see art that genuinely old?

For more information about the saint (who turns out to be St. Adalbert whose church we had seen in an obscure corner of Krakow’s main square and forgotten), click here. To make the identification of the panels in our photographs easier for our readers, here is help from the Gniezno website.

In front of the cathedral stands the statue of the king who was crowned here, Boleslaw Chrobry. The conventional way to describe and illustrate the doors is to start at the bottom left, panel No. 1, go up to No. 9 at the top, then go down the right doors to No. 18 at the bottom.

Left.panels 4 through7, up from No. 4, the one with the door knocker. Some panels are much more interesting than others.

This top image goes up on the left from No. 8 where St. Adalbert is scolding his Bohemian prince for being involved in slavery up over the top to No. 10 on the right, where he arrives to bring Christianity to the Prussians, a pagan race of ignorant peasants who would later have their identity usurped by the Teutonic Knights and become a formidable foe of any enemy in northern Poland. They were the ruthless forerunners of some who were absorbed into the German race. On panel No. 10 you can see the saint arriving to proselytize among the Prussians — and you can see he is not welcome

Those are the panels that run down to the right door knocker, with No. 14 above the knocker showing the murder of the saint.

The lower panels on both sides required back-breaking bending that made photography difficult and ended our chatter about where the Prussians came from.

Beyond where we are standing in this ancient land, lies another fragment of history where, 500 years ago, was born a scientist, one that Neil Armstrong himself called “a giant.” In Torun, a baby first saw the sky that would famously consume his interests, Nicolaus Copernicus, who tried to tell the world the Earth moves around the sun, not the opposite — until he was silenced by the Church.


After all the “religion as metaphor” we’ve had explained to us — and photographed in the last week – we think more confidently now that with Copernicus ahead of us it will all be science and entertainment because travel really should be fun!

We step down from our coach sniffing deeply as instructed for the smell of gingerbread in this the “Gingerbread Capital of Poland.” Gingerbread must be a popular dessert in Europe because we were told once in Nuremberg it was the sweetbread capital, actually of the world. Ginger helped preserve bread in the 15th century and gingerbread houses became so popular they could be a part of the 1812 Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel.

Torun image shows a gingerbread shop’s interior and Torun’s donkey who appears to be ignoring an elderly woman but giving the eye to a younger woman and, yes, the Copernicus statue beyond.

We don’t recognize the famous smell here until we get to the recommended store where we surely do get the smell and see how it helps sell Torun Tourism. Torun may not need much help. Like all those places we are finding in Poland they have their history or their take on it. Munching our piece of sweetbread we wander over to the bronze mule that seems to guard a corner of the square The “Torun donkey” originally was made of wood and came into use about 1629 as a pillory for delinquents, sometimes soldiers who were being disciplined by the city authorities. The bronze permanent donkey that replaced it still demonstrates the painful capability that made the punishment fearful for men. The prisoners were mounted on top of the rigid ridge that ran down the donkey’s spine and heavy lead weights were tied to their legs to intensify the pain.

Someone had clearly worked out the science of all this but Torun’s most famous scientist, Copernicus, can’t be blamed because he had died in 1543, 76 years before the Torun Donkey appeared.

Copernicus was born in Europe when many countries were arguing their claim for identity. Some parts of western Poland might be Polish or German depending on the geopolitics of the time. So a common debate was, Is Copernicus Polish or German? Whatever, Napoleon was apparently surprised when his armies occupied Torun in 1809 to find it, the very birthplace of this man, had no statue to him. The statue was completed in 1853 and bears the Latin inscription drawn up by Alexander von Humboldt: "Nicolaus Copernicus Thorunensis, terrae motor, solis caelique stator" ("Nicolaus Copernicus of Thorun, mover of the earth, stopper of the sun and heavens")

What an accolade; “The man who stopped the sun!”

Torun was a wealthy member of the towns of the Hanseatic League and the father of Copernicus a successful merchant thus the Copernicus museum in the family’s former home reveals a solid and substantial, well preserved dwelling. If the stairs creak that is to be expected; the house was built around 1350. Two houses comprise the museum at numbers 15 or 17 Copernicus Street. It is not certain in which home Copernicus was born.

Copernicus’ home. Second bottom image, Copernicus study. Bottom: Portrait Nicholas Copernicus by Melchior Pyrnesiusz (1580) based on Epitaph in St. John’s Cathedral in Torun.

Copernicus’ Doctorate Diploma Cop fascsimile, 1503, Ferrara. The paradox of a wall in the Copernicus home: beside documents from the 16th century, a representation of Copernicus lecturing on astronomy in 1500 in Rome and paintings of his death scene hangs a notice showing the location of the building’s defibrillator!

Copernicus had wide interests in other fields beyond astronomy: mathematics, canon law, medicine, and economics. In 1517 he wrote a proposed scheme of currency reform and in 1522 proposed a system that would unify Polish and Prussian coins. Maybe he was predicting the arrival one day of the Euro! He also defined an economic law “Bad money drives out good money,“ which Sir Thomas Gresham, Queen Elizabeth’s financial advisor, developed more elegantly in 1588 to be credited for the concept then called Gresham’s Law.

Coins of 1528. One of the many 19th century books published on the life of Copernicus. Awareness of his work was hindered by church disapproval. In 1616, the Congregation of the Index issued a degree condemning it and it was not removed from Index Librorum Prohibitorum until 1758.

As we head out of the great plains and swing to the north, Piotr, our tour leader, tries to explain the complexities of the Indo-European languages. He knows he will not succeed. We are not the first group of mostly Americans he has tied to explain all this to.

He makes an easy start explaining that a lot of words we use regularly in the United States have a foreign origin. Our greeting, hello, for example is Hungarian. The word, robot, comes from the Czech word for “laborer.” The Russian word bistro means “fast food.” And so on.

He tells us how some English expressions don’t really have literal conversions in Polish: For example, a Pole doesn’t sulk, “he has flies up his nose.” A Pole won’t pull your leg. “He’ll stick you in a bottle.” And a Pole is not uninformed; he “just fell off the Christmas tree.” And Poles don’t simply grin and bear it; they “put up a good face for a bad game.”

We “are putting up a good face for a bad game” ourselves right now because Piotr has passed a map of European languages around to clarify what he is telling us about the continent’s languages, namely that to some linguists the Germanic languages (German, English and Scandinavian) are to some degree easy. The Romance languages (Latino Italian and Spanish, Portuguese and French may be learned but the others are impossible especially the Slavic. So now we know our limitations

And now we see a road sign that confirms we are heading for Gdansk, a place once savoring the German name “the free city of Danzig,” the place where once the first shots of World War II rang out. A place that created Six Years of Hell.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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