Dec 5 – Bl Niels Stensen, (1638-1686), Bishop, Vicar Apostolic of Nordic Missions – Father of Geology, Anatomist, Neuroscientist


In the mid-seventeenth century there was an anxious young man who wrote in his journal, “I pray Thee, O God, take this plague from me and free my soul from all distraction.  To work on one thing alone and to make myself familiar with the tables of medicines, alone.”  Well, we are lucky, and luckily for generations of biologists, anatomists, neuroscientists, geologists, paleontologists, that prayer went unanswered and the young man continued chasing his wandering interests.  The author of that prayer, Niels Stensen, also known by his Latin name, Nicolas Steno, or Nicolaus Stenonis.

He made unprecedented discoveries in anatomy and then some of the most important principles of modern geology.  This was at a time when everyone believed that fossils grew inside of rocks spontaneously and that lowly animals emerged spontaneously from decaying matter.  It was incredible.  Nicolas Steno, born on New Year’s Day in 1638.  His father was a goldsmith and a court jeweler.  He was a Lutheran, born in Copenhagen during the Thirty Years War.  He was a frail and sickly young boy and actually contracted an illness that kept him indoors for three years as a youngster and when he recovered from that, his father died at age seven.  His mother remarried but her new husband died just a year later and so he went to live with an older half-sister and her husband.

It was at this time that the plague was sweeping across Copenhagen and indeed Europe.  At times there were sixty funerals in a day.  At age fifteen he lost many of his friends.  He never owned a home and in his life seldom lived in one place for very long and rarely enjoyed a steady income.  He agonized over the fate of his own soul.  All of this perhaps because of this relatively unstable and uncertain childhood and adolescence that he underwent.  He did have some surrogate fathers.  The first of these was Oley Borch, an alchemist, with whom he studied solid particles suspended in liquid.

Stensen really wanted to study mathematics but figured out that being a doctor would be more practical.  So, he went to the University of Copenhagen to study medicine.  At this time he spoke five different languages.  What a savant, he was conversant they say in Greek and Hebrew.  He wrote a manuscript called “Chaos” in 1659 actually in Latin, where he recorded observations examining the grains of sand, snowflakes, and essentially rejected Aristotelian elements of earth, fire, air, and water.

It was at this time that the University in Copenhagen closed its doors.  Denmark was at war with Sweden.  Thomas Bartholin, who was Denmark’s’ leading anatomist at that point in time was his next mentor, and he probably learned some of his dissection techniques from Bartholin, or he could have simply inherited manual dexterity from his father, a goldsmith.  He began to travel throughout Germany and France.  Eventually moving to the bustling multi-cultural city of Amsterdam.

While he was going through France he would meet with the literati and the intellectual elite educators at various universities.  One physician said that he used to impress the high society with dissections of horse eyes.  You could imagine that that is a pretty rare trick at parties.  This French physician said that “He made us see everything there is to see in the construction of the eye, without putting the eye, the scissors, or his one other small instrument anywhere but in his one hand, which he kept constantly exposed to the gathered company, almost as if he was a magician with sleight of hand.”

Eventually, he moved back to Amsterdam and a bustling multi-cultural city he saw; he saw the commerce and he respected the religious freedom there.  He stayed with a physician named Gerard Blaze and it was with Blaze that while dissecting a sheep’s head he, almost accidentally, discovered the parotid duct, which carries his name even today, Stensen’s duct, which is opposite the second to the last molar in the upper jaw.  He noted by passing a probe there that the parotid duct emptied there into the mouth.

In 1662 he published a report on anatomical observations of glands, describing all the glands in the head.  In Paris, only a few years later he delved into studying muscles, realizing that muscles worked through contractions of the muscle fibers.  Not by ballooning of them, which was commonly believed at the time.  He was one of the first to discover that the heart is actually a muscle pumping blood to the body, not pumping or transferring heat.  He met various philosophers in Holland.  He disputed Descartes.  He moved onto the French Academy of Sciences.  Throughout his travels in France he began to discuss the Catholic faith with friends there.

In 1665 he published a treatise on the anatomy of the brain that was delivered in flawless French, it was said, and in it he had key finds about the anatomy of the brain.  His dissection techniques were meticulous.  In this treatise he said that one could not hope to understand the functions of the various parts of the brain until we can get better dissection techniques.  So, in 1666, on the feast of Corpus Christi on June twenty-four, Stensen was in Levorno, Italy, and he witnessed a Corpus Christi Eucharistic procession.  He said, “When I saw the host being carried in a procession through the streets, the following thoughts welled up inside me.  Either this host is a normal piece of bread, and so those who have accorded such honor are fools, or the host really does contain the body of Christ and so why don’t I too honor it?”

He began to study the Bible and the oldest Christian writings in the morning and geology in the afternoon.  He moved to Florence to Academia Dolce Mento, he was called there by the Medicis and by the intellectual curiosity of the Medici.  The Medicis had brought together the Academia Dolce Mento: scientists really studying science.  They were funded.  Stensen had no knowledge of something like this being in France, where the rulers really had no interest in devoting an immense amount of money, simply for the pursuit of art and science as the Medici did in Florence, Italy.

It was here where he met an elderly nun, Maria Flaviomaneiro, they began to pray the Angelus together daily.  She talked to him about the Catholic view of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation.  They were all brought there by the Medici brothers, Ferdinando and his brother, Leopoldo.

In October of 1666, a great white shark washed up on the shores of Levorno and Stensen went to dissect it and noted thirteen rows of teeth, and these teeth resembled, what, up to this time, had been called glossopetrae, or tongue stones, why were they called that?  Well, these were tiny little rocks found that seemed to fall from the sky, they appeared after rain storms and they even occurred in mountains and they looked as if they were serpents teeth or serpents tongues, and there is a story of Saint Paul that while he was shipwrecked in Malta, had either turned the serpents to stone, or somehow the tongues became stone, but Steno said they looked like sharks’ teeth.  Now he wasn’t the first to correctly identify sharks teeth. He didn’t even state it with certainty, but his published illustrations left no doubt and he talked about how can sharks’ teeth appear in the mountains?  He started to put two and two together and came to the conclusion that a great sea covered these mountains at one point in time.

In November of 1667, he was received into the Catholic Church on All Souls Day.  He tells the story of walking down the street and hearing someone yell, “‘Go not on the side that you are about to go, sir. Go on the other side.’  That voice struck me, because I was just mediating on religion.”

Neither he nor others could really explain why he would suddenly convert, logical arguments just weren’t enough. This was something that touched him deep inside.  Stensen would then convert many in his lifetime.  He never pressed anyone to convert, but convinced them with arguments and reason.  He stressed that faith was a gift and he denounced forced conversions.  He always left converts take the last steps themselves.

In Stensen’s time, scholars had debated the origins of fossils. They did have resemblance to living organisms.  Could they have belonged to organisms that had become extinct?  Well, the concept of extinction didn’t exist at this time.  The explanation was that they were likely deposited by Noah’s flood, or, that the fossils themselves grew spontaneously inside rocks.  So, you could imagine that shell fossils found under a shoreline didn’t stretch the limits of credulity, but, when you find ocean mollusks on mountaintops, that certainly did.  How could a flood deposit these there?  He realized what seems obvious today; fossils result from once living organisms.  He noted that trees bent around rocks, but fossils didn’t.  So, the fossils had to be there first, as a part of the rock.  He wrote a manuscript on the geology of Tuscany in 1669 called “De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento”, or simply, De solido, and came up with Steno’s Principles, or Stensen’s Principles, which are even studied today by geology students.  The principle of super-position in stating that the sentiment levels are deposited in sequence with the oldest layers on the bottom.

In the midst of his conversion to Catholicism, Stensen received an ironic summons from Frederick III to return to Denmark, which of course was not a Catholic country.  So, he spent the next twenty months on a journey of nearly four thousand miles, reaching Amsterdam when he received word that Frederick III was dead and he was off the hook.  No update on life status on Facebook in those days.  On the road to Denmark he had seen some of Europe’s geological wonders, the Alps, Mount Vesuvius, and others.  He got to know Gottfried Leibniz, who was best remembered for his dispute with Isaac Newton over the invention of calculus.  Leibniz was so convinced that Stensen must keep working after he became a priest, that he searched diligently for any writings that he might have left behind.

But, in the last phase of his life, Stensen changed course again.  Stensen reached Copenhagen but at the time since he heard the king died, he missed Florence and he wanted to go back to Florence and permission was granted so that he could tutor a young Medici prince.  He said “Whenever I tried to repay God’s goodness towards me, not that I would ever be in a position to do so, the debt seemed so huge that I was filled with the desire to give him the best that I could in the best possible way.”  So, in 1675 he took a vow of poverty and became a priest.  He hoped for a simple life of pastoral duties, but the church summoned him to Rome and made him a Bishop in 1677.  His new assignment was in northern Europe converting Protestants to Catholicism in Germany, Norway, and Denmark; a tough, tough assignment.

So, he went to Hanover and in Hanover the clergy were spread incredibly thin. They were eager to have him come, however, and even more eager to have him come was Leibniz, the philosopher and mathematician he met earlier.  Leibniz deplored Steno’s decision to leave science and he said that he went from being a great physicist to a mediocre theologian.  Stensen was frustrated by the bureaucracy and corruption in the church and the indifference of the laity.  He sought solace by taking vows of poverty and self-denial to ever increasing extremes. He even asked Rome to release him from his vows as Bishop.  He sold his Bishop’s ring and crucifix to give money to the poor.  Doing this you might imagine he made enemies of the wealthy parishioners and the upper ranks of clergy.  He fled again. This time to Hamburg.  More and more ascetic he became.  A friend said “I found him there without a house, without a servant, devoid of all of life’s comforts, lean, pale and emaciated.  He slept sitting in a chair, a bed of straw on the floor. He fasted four days a week on bread and water and dressed like a pauper, performing his pastoral duties, bare foot.”

On November 21, 1686 he had intense abdominal pain that continued.  Two days later he collapsed and he was carried to bed with a swollen belly.  At the end he asked those around him who were praying to change from the prayers of the sick to the prayers of the dying.  He called his own death.  He said, “To my usual ailment, colic, it seems now that the stone has been added, not a drop of urine comes. I believe that it has imbedded itself in the fold of the bladder”, a kidney stone, “and this will be the cause of my death.”  Shortly before 7AM on November 26, 1686 he died at the age of forty-eight.  His self-denial taking its ultimate toll.  According to an inventory, his clothing and personal furnishings consisted of a wretched black garment, an old tunic, an old cloak, two sack cloth shirts, some small handkerchiefs and a nightcap.  The funeral was delayed nearly two weeks for lack of proper clothing to dress the corpse.  He ultimately did make it back to Florence however in May of 1687 when the corpse was loaded on a ship bound for San Lorenzo, where he was buried in the Medici church in Florence, Italy.

Three hundred years after his death, Danish pilgrims petitioned Pius XI for canonization.   In 1953 his coffin was opened and a skeleton was found, minus the head, in bishop’s robes and crozier, the body was processed and buried in a chapel with the name, the Capella Stenoyana.  A miracle for beatification was announced.  The spontaneous recovery of a cancer patient and he was beatified on October 23rd, the exact day Bishop Usher had chosen for the creation of the world.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II 1988.  What a radical change of life.  In the latter years Steno cared more about saving souls than studying rock strata.  Yet, he never renounced his scientific work.  He said “One sins against the majesty of God by being unwilling to look into nature’s own works and contenting one’s self with reading others.  In this way, one forms and creates for one’s self, various fanciful notions and thus does not only not enjoy the pleasure of looking into God’s wonders, but also wastes time that should be spent on necessities and to the benefits of one’s neighbors and states many things which are unworthy of God.”  Stensen’s coat of arms as a Bishop, a cross and a heart and as a testament to his anatomical dissections, the heart is larger on the left.  Impact craters on Mars and the Moon are named in his honor.


-Google doodle of 11 Jan 2012 in honor of Bl Niels Stensen.



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