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Stensen [Steno], Niels

1. Dates
Born: Copenhagen, 1 or 10 or 11 Jan 1638
Died: Schwerin, Germany, 21 or 25 Nov or 5 Dec 1686
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 48
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
His father was Sten Pedersen (d. 1644), who had a flourishing business as a goldsmith and vintner. Apparently he died while Stensen was still a child; I don't know when.
The law required that upon the death of a father a guardian be appointed for the child. In Stensen's case this was a treasury official called Jorgen Carstensen (who was married to Stensen's half-sister), who oversaw the investment of the child's 1402 Rix dollars.
There can't be any doubt that Stensen grew up in affluent circumstances.
3. Nationality
Birth: Copenhagen, Denmark
Career: Italy, Denmark, Germany
Death: Schwerin, Germany
4. Education
Schooling: Copenhagen; Leiden, M.D.
He attended the renowned Vor Frue Skole grammar school in Copenhagen.
1656-60, University of Copenhagen. He studied medicine and came under the influence of Simon Paulli and Thomas Bartholin. He selected Bartholin as his tutor. Unfortunately his education was disrupted by the invasion of Swedish troops.
1660-3, University of Leiden, where he studied under Sylvius, Johannes van Horne (1621-70), and Jakob Golius (1596- 1667). Unfortunately, he was called home by the death of his stepfather. He received his M.D. in absentia in 1664.
1664, he travelled to Paris, where he spent a year living with and in the circle of Thévenot, the King's chamberlain. He then travelled to Montpellier (1665) and Pisa (1666). He remained in Tuscany 1666-8, mostly at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinand II in Florence.
1668-70, he returned to Denmark, but 1670-2 he returned to Florence, where he again worked in Tuscany, doing some exploring for the Accademia del Cimento.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Lth; Catholic
He came from a deeply religious Lutheran family, but converted to Catholicism in 1667. In 1675, he was consecrated a priest.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Anatomy, Physiology, Geology
Subordinate: Embryology
He distinguished glands from the lymph nodes according to their function, and found a series of glands furnishing fluid to each of the body cavities. In his Observationes anatomicae (1662), dealing with his new discoveries concerning the glands, he described the lachrymal apparatus in great detail. His De musculis et glandis (1664) shows an abundance of new observations and discoveries concerning the anatomy and physiology of individual muscles, and the triangularis.
His Prodromus (1671), which outlines the principles of modern geology, contains new insights in almost every sentence or paragraph.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage, Church Life
When Stensen returned to Copenhagen in 1664, he hoped to be appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Copenhagen, but Thomas Bartholin's nephew, Matthias Jacobsen, received the position.
1666, he recieved an apartment in the Palazzo Vecchio and a position as anatomist at the hospital Santa Maria Nuova. He was in Tuscany from 1666 to 1668, mostly at the counrt of Grand Duke Ferdinance II.
1672, he was recalled to Denmark as royal anatomist (as a non-Lutheran he could not hold a faculty position at the University of Copenhagen, so he was named royal anatomist). He received a salary of 400 Rdlr.
1674, he returned to Florence, where he worked for two years as an educator and tutor to the crown prince, Cosimo III.
He was consecrated as a priest in 1675 in Florence.
1677, he was invited to Rome by Duke Johann Friedrich of Hannover and was appointed apostolic vicar of northern missions by Pope Innocent XI and consecrated titular Bishop of Titiopolis.
1677-80, he ministered to the remnants of Catholicism in northern Germany, Denmark, and Norway.
1680-3, after the death of the Duke, he was appointed suffragan Bishop of Münster and dean of the collegiate church St. Ludgeri (this appointment was a common way of raising someone's salary).
1683, he left in protest against the simonaic election of the bishop's successor and occupied himself with apostolic activity in Hamburg (1683-5) and Schwerin (1685-6) for the remaining years of his life.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Eccesiastic Official
He dedicated his De musculis et glandulis observationum specimen (1664) to Frederick III, King of Denmark, hoping for an appointment to the University of Copenhagen. He received invitations from Copenhagen with promises of a professor's salary when he was in Italy in 1667 and 1668, but he continued his journeys of study. Only when Griffenfeld obtained assurances of his freedom of religious practice in Denmark did he return to Copenhagen in 1672. But as a non-Lutheran he could not hold a faculty position and was instead appointed royal anatomist (a position that was, I gather, was created for Stensen).
In Italy, he stayed initially in Pisa with Francesco Redi (1666). Thereafter, he received financial support and living quarters from the Medicis, predominantly Grand Duke Ferdinand II. He was also physician to Ferdinand. In 1675, he assumed responsibilty for the education of the later Duke Ferdinand III. Later, at the behest of Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Steno's body was brought from Germany to Florence where it was interred.
He was called from Florence to Rome by Johann Friedrich, Duke of Hannover, so that he could be appointed to serve the northern remnants of Catholicism.
He was appointed suffragan Bishop of Münster by the Princebishop of Paderborn and Münster, Ferdinand von Fürstenberg, who should certainly be counted as a patron.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
There is evidence that he was physician to Ferdinand II.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Accademia del Cimento
He was a member of the Accademia del Cimento, which was founded by Grand Duke Ferdinand II's brother Cardinal Leopoldo.
He had life-long connections with student friends from Leiden: Jan Swammerdam (1637-80), Regnier de Graaf (1641-73). He also corresponded with William Croone.
He carried on correspondence/collaboration with Ole Borch, Spinoza, Leiniz, Malpighi, Giovanni Riva (a surgeon), and Thomas Bartholin.
  1. Gustav Scherz, Niels Stensen: Denker und Forscher im Barock (1638-1686) [Grosse Naturforscher, 28], (Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1964). [Geol. QE22.S77 S32] , Pionier der Wissenschaften: Niels Stensen in seinen Schriften, (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1963). [Geol. QE22.S77 S33] Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686): A reconsideration by Danish scientists, (Gentofte: Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium, 1986). [QM16.S74 N53]
  2. Dansk Biografisk Leksikon.
  3. V. Ingerslev, Danmarks Laeger og Laegevaesen, 2, 28-33.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Niccolo Stenone nella Firenze e nell'Europa del suo tempo, catalogue of an exhibition, Stefano De Rosa, ed. (Firenze, 1988). Niccolo Stenone 1638-1686. Due giornate di studio, (Firenze, 1988). Gustav Scherz, Niels Stensen: Eine Biographie, Band 2: 1677-1686.
  2. Bearbeitet von Harriet M. Hansen. Hrsg. von Franz Peter Sonntag, (Leipzig: St. Benno-Verlag, 1988).
  3. T.M. Brown, The Mechanical Philosophy and Animal Oeconomy, Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, 1968, pp. 91-100.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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