Nicolas Steno

Nicolas Steno
Vicar Apostolic of Nordic Missions

Portrait of Steno as bishop

Portrait of Steno as bishop
See Titopolis
Appointed 21 August 1677
by Pope Innocent XI
Term ended 5 December 1686
Predecessor Valerio Maccioni
Successor Friedrich von Tietzen[notes 1]
Other posts Titular Bishop of Titopolis
Ordination 13 April 1675[2]
Consecration 19 September 1677
by Saint Gregorio Barbarigo[3][4]
Personal details
Birth name Niels Steensen
Born (1638-01-01)1 January 1638
[NS: 11 January 1638]
Copenhagen, Denmark-Norway
Died 25 November 1686(1686-11-25) (aged 48)
[NS: 5 December 1686]
Schwerin, Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Buried Basilica of San Lorenzo, Italy
Nationality Danish
Denomination Roman Catholic
  • father: Steen Pedersen[5]
  • mother: Anne Nielsdatter[6]
Previous post
Coat of arms Coat of arms of Bishop Nicolas Steno. The cross symbolizes faith and the heart, the natural sciences.
Feast day 5 December
Venerated in 1686
Beatified 23 October 1988
Rome, Vatican City
by Pope John Paul II

Nicolas Steno (Danish: Niels Steensen; Latinized to Nicolaus Stenonis or Nicolaus Stenonius[notes 2]; 1 January 1638 – 25 November 1686[9][10] [NS: 11 January 1638 – 5 December 1686][9]) was a Danish scientist, a pioneer in both anatomy and geology who became a Catholic bishop in his later years. Steno was trained in the classical texts on science; however, by 1659 he seriously questioned accepted knowledge of the natural world.[11] Importantly he questioned explanations for tear production, the idea that fossils grew in the ground and explanations of rock formation. His investigations and his subsequent conclusions on fossils and rock formation have led scholars to consider him one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and modern geology.[12][13]

Born to a Lutheran family, Steno converted to Catholicism in 1667. After his conversion, his interest for natural sciences rapidly waned giving way to his interest in theology.[14] At the beginning of 1675, he decided to become a priest. Four months after, he was ordained in the Catholic clergy in Easter 1675. As a clergyman, he was later appointed Vicar Apostolic of Nordic Missions and Titular Bishop of Titopolis by Pope Innocent XI. Steno played an active role in the Counter-Reformation in Northern Germany. He was venerated as a saint after his death and the Roman Catholic canonization process was begun in 1938. Pope John Paul II beatified Steno in 1988.[15]

Early life and career

Portrait of Nicolas Steno (1666–1677). Unsigned but attributed to court painter Justus Sustermans. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)[16]

Nicolas Steno was born in Copenhagen on New Year's Day 1638 (Julian calendar), the son of a Lutheran goldsmith who worked regularly for King Christian IV of Denmark. He became ill at age three, suffering from an unknown disease, and grew up in isolation during his childhood. In 1644 his father died, after which his mother married another goldsmith. In 1654–1655, 240 pupils of his school died due to the plague. Across the street lived Peder Schumacher (who would offer Steno a post as professor in Copenhagen in 1671). At the age of 19, Steno entered the University of Copenhagen to pursue medical studies.[17] After completing his university education, Steno set out to travel through Europe; in fact, he would be on the move for the rest of his life. In the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany he came into contact with prominent physicians and scientists. These influences led him to use his own powers of observation to make important scientific discoveries.

At the urging of Thomas Bartholin, Steno first travelled to Rostock, then to Amsterdam, where he studied anatomy under and lodged with Gerard Blasius, focusing on the lymphatic system. Within a few months Steno moved to Leiden, where he met the students Jan Swammerdam, Frederik Ruysch, Reinier de Graaf, Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius, a famous professor, and Baruch Spinoza.[18] At the time Descartes was publishing on the working of the brain, and Steno doubted Descartes's explanation of the origin of tears[19] as produced by the brain. Invited to Paris by Henri Louis Habert de Montmor and Pierre Bourdelot, he there met Ole Borch and Melchisédech Thévenot who were interested in new research and in demonstrations of his skills. In 1665 Steno travelled to Saumur, Bordeaux and Montpellier, where he met Martin Lister and William Croone, who introduced Steno's work to the Royal Society.

After travelling through France, he settled in Italy in 1666 - at first as professor of anatomy at the University of Padua and then in Florence as in-house physician of Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando II de' Medici, who supported arts and science and whom Steno had met in Pisa.[20] Steno was invited to live in the Palazzo Vecchio; in return he had to gather a cabinet of curiosities. Steno went to Rome and met Pope Alexander VII and Marcello Malpighi, whom he admired. On his way back he watched a Corpus Christi procession in Livorno and wondered if he had the right belief.[21] In Florence Steno focused on the muscular system and the nature of muscle contraction. He became a member of Accademia del Cimento and had long discussions with Francesco Redi. Like Vincenzo Viviani, Steno proposed a geometrical model of muscles to show that a contracting muscle changes its shape but not its volume.[22][23]

Scientific contributions

Illustration from Steno's 1667 paper comparing the teeth of a shark head with a fossil tooth


Main article: Parotid duct

During his stay in Amsterdam, Steno discovered a previously undescribed structure, the "ductus stenonianus" (the duct of the parotid salivary gland) in sheep, dog and rabbit heads. A dispute with Blasius over credit for the discovery arose, but Steno's name remained associated with this structure known today as the Stensen's duct.[24] In Leiden, Steno studied the boiled heart of a cow, and determined that it was an ordinary muscle[25][26] and not the center of warmth as Galenus and Descartes believed.[27]


In October 1666 two fishermen caught a huge female shark near the town of Livorno, and Ferdinando II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, ordered its head to be sent to Steno. Steno dissected the head and published his findings in 1667. He noted that the shark's teeth bore a striking resemblance to certain stony objects, found embedded within rock formations, that his learned contemporaries were calling glossopetrae or "tongue stones". Ancient authorities, such as the Roman author Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, had suggested that these stones fell from the sky or from the Moon. Others were of the opinion, also following ancient authors, that fossils naturally grew in the rocks. Steno's contemporary Athanasius Kircher, for example, attributed fossils to a "lapidifying virtue diffused through the whole body of the geocosm", considered an inherent characteristic of the earth – an Aristotelian approach. Fabio Colonna, however, had already shown in a convincing way that glossopetrae are shark teeth,[28] in his treatise De glossopetris dissertatio published in 1616.[29] Steno added to Colonna's theory a discussion on the differences in composition between glossopetrae and living sharks' teeth, arguing that the chemical composition of fossils could be altered without changing their form, using the contemporary corpuscular theory of matter.

Steno's work on shark teeth led him to the question of how any solid object could come to be found inside another solid object, such as a rock or a layer of rock. The "solid bodies within solids" that attracted Steno's interest included not only fossils, as we would define them today, but minerals, crystals, encrustations, veins, and even entire rock layers or strata. He published his geologic studies in De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, or Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid in 1669. This book was his last scientific work of note.[30][notes 3] Steno was not the first to identify fossils as being from living organisms; his contemporaries Robert Hooke and John Ray, as well as Leonardo da Vinci a century earlier also argued that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms.

Geology and stratigraphy

De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (1669)

Steno, in his Dissertationis prodromus of 1669 is credited with four of the defining principles of the science of stratigraphy:

These principles were applied and extended in 1772 by Jean-Baptiste L. Romé de l'Isle. Steno's ideas still form the basis of stratigraphy and were key in the development of James Hutton's theory of infinitely repeating cycles of seabed deposition, uplifting, erosion, and submersion.[32]


For more details on crystallographic indices, see Crystal system.

Steno gave the first accurate observations on a type of crystal in his 1669 book "De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento".[33] The principle in crystallography, known simply as Steno's law, or Steno's law of constant angles or the first law of crystallography,[34] states that the angles between corresponding faces on crystals are the same for all specimens of the same mineral. Steno's seminal work paved the way for the law of the rationality of the crystallographic indices of French mineralogist René-Just Haüy in 1801.[33][35] This fundamental breakthrough formed the basis of all subsequent inquiries into crystal structure.

Religious studies

Steno's questioning mind also influenced his religious views. Having been brought up in the Lutheran faith, he nevertheless questioned its teachings, something which became a burning issue when confronted with Roman Catholicism while studying in Florence. After making comparative theological studies, including reading the Church Fathers and by using his natural observational skills, he decided that Catholicism, rather than Lutheranism, provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness. In 1667, Steno converted to Catholicism on All Souls' Day when Lavinia Cenami Arnolfini, a noblewoman of Lucca, insisted.[36][37]

Steno traveled to Hungary, Austria and in Spring 1670 he arrived in Amsterdam. There he met with old friends Jan Swammerdam and Reinier de Graaf. With Anna Maria van Schurman and Antoinette Bourignon he discussed scientific and religious topics. The following quote is from a 1673 speech:

Fair is what we see, Fairer what we have perceived, Fairest what is still in veil.[38]

It is not clear if he met Nicolaes Witsen, but he did read Witsen's book on shipbuilding. In 1671 he accepted the post of professor of anatomy in the University of Copenhagen,[20] but promised Cosimo III de' Medici he would return when he was appointed tutor to Ferdinando III de' Medici.

At the beginning of 1675, Steno decided to continue his theological studies, which he had begun even before his conversion, toward his ordination to the priesthood.[39] After only 4 months, he was ordained priest and celebrated his first mass on 13 April 1675 in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence at the age of 37.[7][36][39] Athanasius Kircher expressly asked what were the reasons why he decided to become priest.[39] Steno had left natural sciences for education and theology and became one of the leading figures in the Counter-Reformation.[30] Upon request of Duke Johann Friedrich of Hanover, Pope Innocent XI made him Vicar Apostolic for the Nordic Missions on 21 August 1677. He was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis on 19 September by Cardinal Barbarigo and moved to the Lutheran North.[3]

In the year after he was made bishop, he was probably involved in the banning of publications by Spinoza,[40] There he had talks with Gottfried Leibniz, the librarian; the two argued about Spinoza and his letter to Albert Burgh, then Steno's pupil.[41] Leibniz recommended a reunification of the churches. Steno worked at the city of Hannover until 1680.

After John Frederick death's, Prince-Bishop of Paderborn Ferdinand of Fürstenberg appointed him as Auxiliary Bishop of Münster (Church Saint Liudger) on 7 October 1680.[7] The new prince-elector Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover was a Protestant. Earlier, Augustus' wife, Sophia of Hanover, had made fun of Steno's piousness; he had sold his bishop's ring and cross to help the needy. He continued zealously the work of counter reform begun by Bernhard von Galen.[7]

In 1683, Steno resigned as auxiliary bishop after an argument about the election of the new bishop, Maximilian Henry of Bavaria and moved in 1684 to Hamburg.[36] There Steno became involved again in the study of the brain and the nerve system with an old friend Dirck Kerckring.[42] Steno was invited to Schwerin, when it became clear he was not accepted in Hamburg. Steno dressed like a poor man in an old cloak. He drove in an open carriage in snow and rain. Living four days a week on bread and beer, he became emaciated.[notes 4] When Steno had fulfilled his mission, some years of difficult tasks, he wanted to go back to Italy. Before he could return, Steno became severely ill, his belly swelling day by day. Steno died in Germany, after much suffering. His corpse was shipped to Florence by Kerckring upon request of Cosimo III de' Medici and buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo close to his protectors, the De' Medici family.[7] In 1946 his grave was opened,[43] and the corpse was reburied after a procession through the streets of the city.[44]


After his death in 1686, Steno was venerated as a saint in the diocese of Hildesheim.[7] Steno's piety and virtue have been evaluated with a view to an eventual canonization. His canonization process was begun in Osnabrück in 1938.[7] In 1953 his grave in the crypt of the church of San Lorenzo was opened as part of the beatification process.[45] His corpse was transferred to a fourth-century Christian sarcophagus found in the river Arno donated by the Italian state. His remains were placed in a lateral chapel of the church that received the name of "Capella Stenoniana".[7][45] He was declared "beatus" — the third of four steps to being declared a saint — by Pope John Paul II in 1988. He is thus now called by Catholics Blessed Nicolas Steno. His feast day is 5 December.[7]


Steno's life and work has been studied, in particular in relation to the developments in geology in the late nineteenth century.

Major works

Elementorum myologiae specimen, 1669


  1. Friedrich von Tietzen, called Schlüter (1626-1696)[1]
  2. Also known as Nikolaus or Nils Steensen, Stens.[7] Steno took his surname from his father's given name. In accordance with the academic customs of his time, Nicolas latinized the Danish form of his name Niels Ste(e)nsen as Nicolaus Stenonis. The English form, Steno, is due to an error in parsing the Latin.[8]
  3. Leibnitz came to know and esteem Steno in Hannover and expressed deep regrets that Steno had abandoned his earlier studies.[31]
  4. On the other days there were never more than four courses plus a dessert, even though noblemen from the court often dined with him.
  1. Janker, Stephan M. (1990). Die Bischöfe des Heiligen Römischen Reiches : ein biographisches Lexikon (in German). Berlin: Duncker und Humblot. p. 516. ISBN 978-3-428-06763-3.
  2. Kermit 2002, p. 19
  3. 1 2 Miniati 2009, Note 26, p.77
  4. Pope John XXIII (26 May 1960). "Canonizzazione di S. Gregorio Barbarigo". Homely of His Holiness Pope John XXIII (in Italian). Holy See. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  5. Garrett Winter 1916, p. 184
  6. Cutler 2003
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Scherz 2002
  8. Garrett Winter 1916, p. 175
  9. 1 2  Hansen, Niels (1913). "Nicolaus Steno". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  10. History of Geology – Steno – Aber, James S. 2007. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  11. Kooijmans 2007
  12. Wyse Jackson 2007
  13. Woods 2005, pp. 4 & 96
  14. Garrett Winter 1916, pp. 180, 182
  15. Office Of Papal Liturgical Celebrations. "Beatifications By Pope John Paul II, 1979–2000". Holy See. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  16. Hansen 2009, p. 161
  17. Kermit 2002
  18. Kooijmans 2004, p. 53. See
  19. René, Descartes. "The Origin of Tears" (PDF). The Passions of the Soul. Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  20. 1 2  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Steno, Nicolaus". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  21. Kooijmans, L. (2007) Gevaarlijke kennis, p. 99-100.
  22. Kardel 1990
  23. Kardel 1994, p. 1
  24. Kermit 2003
  25. Tubbs et al. 2010
  26. Andrault 2010
  27. Kooijmans (2007), p. 45.
  28. Breve storia della paleontologia, internet site of Centro dei Musei di Scienze Naturali, university of Naples Retrieved 10 January 2012
  29. Abbona 2002, Geologia. Colonna had been schooled in the collection of Ferrante Imperato, apothecary and virtuoso of Naples, who published his natural history notes in 1599
  30. 1 2 Garrett Winter 1916, p. 182
  31. Garrett Winter 1916, pp. 182
  32. 1 2 Brookfield 2004, p. 116
  33. 1 2 Kunz 1918
  34. Molčanov, K.; Stilinović, V. (2014). "Chemical Crystallography before X-ray Diffraction". Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 53: 638–652. doi:10.1002/anie.201301319.
  35. "Stephen A. Nelson, (Tulane U.) "Introduction to Earth Materials"" (PDF). Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  36. 1 2 3 "Bishop Bl. Niels Stensen". Catholic Hierarchy. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  37. "Niels Stensen". Whonamedit? A dictionary of medical eponyms. Retrieved 11 January 2011.
  38. "Pulchra sunt, quae videntur pulchriora quae sciuntur longe pulcherrima quae ignorantur. From a 1673 speech for the Copenhagen Anatomical Theatre". Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  39. 1 2 3 Kraus 2011, p. 35
  40. Israel 2002, pp. 251, 316
  41. "Skeptic files website". Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  42. Perrini, Lanzino & Parenti 2010
  43. Nicolai Stenonis epistolae et epistolae ad eum datae quas cum prooemio ac notis germanice scriptis edidit Gustav Scherz. 2 tom, p. 997. Kopenhagen und Freiburg, Nordisk Forlag und Herder, 1952.
  44. "Niels Stensen chapel in San Lorenzo – Himetop". 21 March 2010. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  45. 1 2 Kermit 2002, p. 21
  46. "The Steno Museum – Welcome". Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  48. Information about Stenonite on Mindat database, Retrieved on 26 November 2012.
  49. Michael Fleischer (1963), "New Mineral Names", American Mineralogist, 48, at 1178.
  50. "Niels-Stensen-Kirche Grevesmühlen" (in German). Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  51. "Niels Steensens Gymnasium" (in Danish). Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  52. Hom, Jennifer (2012). "Nicolas Steno's 374th Birthday". Doodles. Google. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  53. O'Carroll, Eoin (11 January 2012). "Nicolas Steno: The saint who undermined creationism". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  54. Cavna, Michael (11 January 2012). "Nicolas Steno Google Doodle: Logo digs deep to celebrate Danish 'father of geology'". Washington Post. Retrieved 11 January 2012.

Further reading

  • Tertsch, H. (1958): Niels Stensen und die Kristallographie. Acta historica Scientiarum Naturalium et Medicinalium, Copenhagen, 15, 120-139 (in German).
  • Porter, Ian Herbert (1963). "Thomas Bartholin (1616–80) And Niels Steensen (1638–86) Master And Pupil". Medical History. 7 (2): 99–125. doi:10.1017/s0025727300028155. PMC 1034806Freely accessible. PMID 13985566. 
  • Wieh, Hermann (1988). Niels Stensen : sein Leben in Dokumenten u. Bildern (in German). Würzburg: Echter. ISBN 978-3-429-01165-9. 
  • Holomanova, A.; Ivanova, A.; Brucknerova, I. (2002). "Niels Stensen Prestigious scholar of the 17th century" (PDF). Bratisl Lek Listy. 102: 90–93. 
  • Diederich, Georg, ed. (2011). Diener der Wahrheit – Niels Stensen (in German). Schwerin: Thomas-Morus-Bildungswerk. ISBN 978-3-9810202-6-7.  Selected papers on the life and works of Niels Stensen.
  • Kardel, Troel, ed. (2013). Nicolaus Steno: Biography and Original Papers of a 17th Century Scientist. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-25078-1. 

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