Nicolas Steno


Nicolas Steno : biography

01 January 1638 – 25 November 1686

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. There Steno became involved again in the study of the brain and the nerve system with an old friend Dirck Kerckring. 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.On the other days there were never more than four courses plus a dessert, even though noblemen from the court often dined with him. 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. In 1946 his grave was opened,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. and the corpse was reburied after a procession through the streets of the city.


After his death in 1686, Steno was venerated as a saint in the diocese of Hildesheim. Steno’s piety and virtue have been evaluated with a view to an eventual canonization. His canonization process was begun in Osnabrück in 1938. In 1953 his grave in the crypt of the church of San Lorenzo was opened as part of the beatification process. 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". 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.

Scientific contributions


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. In Leiden, Steno studied the boiled heart of a cow, and determined that it was an ordinary muscle and not the center of warmth as Galenus and Descartes believed.Kooijmans (2007), p. 45.


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,, internet site of Centro dei Musei di Scienze Naturali, university of Naples Retrieved 10 January 2012 in his treaty De glossopetris dissertatio published in 1616.. Colonna had been schooled in the collection of Ferrante Imperato, apothecary and virtuoso of Naples, who published his natural history notes in 1599 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.