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Nicolas Steno was a Danish scientist who helped with the new studies of anatomy and geology. He later became a Catholic Bishop and stopped his scientific studies. Steno did not invent the Steno language and has nothing to do with stenographers.

Young Life and Education

Nicholas Steno, sometimes Nicolaus Steno or Nicholas Steno, was born as Niels Stensen, on January 1, 1638, in Denmark. His father was a Lutheran goldsmith contracted regularly by King Christian IV of Denmark. At three-years-old, he suffered an unknown disease and spent his childhood in isolation. Steno’s father died in 1644 and his mother married another goldsmith. Between 1654 and 1655, 240 of his schoolmates died in the local school due to the plague. He enrolled in the University of Copenhagen to study medicine in 1657.[1]

Steno decided to travel in Europe and started in Rostock, then when to Amsterdam. There he studied anatomy with Gerard Biasius with a focus on the lymphatic system. Stenos then moved to Leiden, where he befriended Frederik Ruysch, Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius, Jan Swammerdam and Baruch Spinoza. He then went to Paris to meet with Pierre Bourdelot and Henri Louis Habert de Montmor and caught the eye of Melchisédech Thévenot and Ole Borch. Nicolas Steno moved on to France and Montpellier where he met William Croone and Martin Lister, who introduced the Royal Society to Steno’s work.[2]

Scientific Career and Contributions

In 1666, Nicolaus Steno settled in Italy as an anatomy professor at the University of Padua. He soon moved to Florence to serve the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando II de’ Medici as his in-house physician. The pair met in Pisa and the Grand Duke invited him to live in the Palazzo Vecchio in return for collecting a cabinet of curiosities. Steno visited Rome and met Pope Alexander VII, before returning to Florence to focus on his work. The muscular system and the nature of muscle contraction fascinated him and he proposed a geometric model of muscles, indicating their changes in shape, but not volume.[3]

Nicolas Steno contributed to many different scientific fields, not just medicine, and the majority of his discoveries bear his name.

Steno discovered the “ductus stenonianus,” known as the Stensen’s duct, while studying the heads of rabbits, dogs, and sheep.[4] He also studied a cow heart and came to the conclusion it is an ordinary muscle, in contrast to Galenus and Descartes.[5] After two fisherman caught a large female star in Livorno in October 1666, Grand Duke Ferdinando ordered the head be sent to Steno for study. He directed the head and published what he found in 1667, noting that the shark’s teeth looked similar to specific stone objects in rock formations. He began studying the difference between the shark’s teeth and glossopetrae, a type of fossil, and published his results in “Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid” in 1669. [6]

In his 1669 “Dissertationis prodromus,” Steno defined four principals of the science of stratigraphy, including The Principle of Lateral Continuity, “Material forming any stratum were continuous over the surface of the Earth unless some other solid bodies stood in the way,” the Principle of Cross-Cutting Relationships, “If a body or discontinuity cuts across a stratum, it must have formed after that stratum,” the Principle of Original Horizontality, “Strata either perpendicular to the horizon or inclined to the horizon were at one time parallel to the horizon,” and the Law of Superposition, “... at the time when any given stratum was being formed, all the matter resting upon it was fluid, and, therefore, at the time when the lower stratum was being formed, none of the upper strata existed.”[7] Steno also gave the first correct observations of a certain type of crystal in his book “De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento” from 1669 and the principle these observations created is known as Steno’s law, or the First Law of Crystallography.[8]

Religious Faith

During Nicolas Steno’s studies in Florence, his Lutheran upbringing came face to face with Roman Catholicism. He felt a profound spirituality and after comparing the two theologies decided Catholicism allowed for his inquisitiveness more than Lutheranism. On All Souls’ Day, he converted to Catholicism at the insistence of noblewoman Lavinia Cenami Arnolfini. He spent time in Austria and went to Amsterdam in early 1670. He accepted an anatomy professorship from the University of Copenhagen in 1671 with the knowledge he swore tutor Ferdinando III de’ Medici when Cosimo II de’ Medici called upon him.

Nicolas Steno abandoned all his scientific studies to dedicate his life to the Catholic Church.

In 1975, focused Steno focused his theological studies on ordination into the priesthood. On April 13, 1674, after only 4 months, he was ordained. He celebrated his first mass on April 13, 1675, in Florence at the Basilica of the Santissima Annuziata.[9] Pope Innocent XI made Steno Vicar Apostolic for the Nordic Missions on August 21, 1677, at the request of Duke Johann Friedrich of Hanover. Cardinal Barbarigo consecrated him the titular bishop of Titiopolis on September 9.

Prince-Bishop Ferdinand of Fürstenberg made Nicholas Steno the Auxiliary Bishop of Münster on October 7, 1680. He picked up where Bernhard von Galen left off for pursuing counter-reform. He resigned from his post in 1683, after arguing about the election of the new bishop, Maximilian Henry of Bavaria, and relocated to Hamburg in 1684. He worked with his old friend, Dirck Kerckring, studying the brain and nervous system, but he did not fit into Hamburg society.[10]

Death and Beatification

Nicolaus Steno in an open carriage and survived on beer and bread only four days a week. When he finished his work he wanted to return to Italy, but became severely ill and died after much suffering in Germany on December 5, 1686. Cosimo Ill de’ Medici requested his body be shipped back to Florence and they buried him in the Basilica de San Lorenzo.

Steno became venerated as a saint in the German Hildesheim dioceses directly after his death. In 1938, dioceses in Osnabrück, Germany began his canonization process.[11] During the 1953 portion of his beatification process, his grave was opened and his corpse moved to a fourth-century Christian sarcophagus discovered in the Arno River and interred in the church nearby. [12] In 1988, Pope John Paul II declared Nicolas Steno “beatus,” the third of fourth steps to become a saint, and is known to Catholics as Blessed Nicolas Steno. Catholics celebrate his feast day on December 5.[13]



Kermit, H. (2003). Niels Stensen, 1638-1986: The Scientist who was Beatified. London, United Kingdom: Gracewing.

Kooijmans, L. (2004). De Doodskunstenaar: De Anatomische Lessen van Frederik Ruysch. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.

Kraus, M.J. (2011). Niels Stensen in Leiden. Germany: GRIN Verlag GmbH. 
Scherz, G. (2002). "Stensen, Niels, Bl.". The New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 13. The. Catholic University Press/Thomas Gale. 


  1. Kermit, 2003
  2. Kooijmans, 2004
  3. Kooijmans, 2004
  4. Kermit, 2003
  5. Kooijmans, 2004
  6. Winter, J. G. (1916). "Introduction – the Life of Steno". The prodromus of Nicolaus Steno's dissertation: concerning a solid body enclosed by progress of nature within a solid – an English version with an introduction and explanatory notes. Macmillan.
  7. Brookfield, M. E. (2003). Principles of Stratigraphy: Instructor’s Manual. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing.
  8. Molčanov, K., & Stilinović, V. (2013). Chemical Crystallography Before X-Ray Diffraction. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 53(3), 638–652. doi:10.1002/anie.201301319/
  9. Kraus, 2011
  10. Scherz, G. (2002)
  11. Scherz, G. (2002)
  12. Kermit, 2003
  13. Scherz, G. (2002)

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