Nicolas Steno

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Nicolas Steno (Danish: Niels Stensen; Latinized to Nicolaus Stenonis, Italian Niccolo' Stenone) (11 January 1638 – 25 November 1686) was a Danish pioneer in both anatomy and geology. Already in 1659 he decided not to accept anything simply written in a book, instead resolving to do research himself.[1] He is considered the father of geology and stratigraphy.[2]


Early career

Nicolas Steno was born in Copenhagen on New Year's Day (Julian calendar), the son of a Lutheran goldsmith who worked regularly for King Christian IV of Denmark. Stensen grew up in isolation in his childhood, because of an unknown disease. In 1644 his father died, after which his mother remarried another goldsmith. In 1654-1655, 240 pupils of his school died because of the plague. Across the street lived Peder Schumacher, (who would offer Steno a post as professor in Copenhagen in 1671). 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 a time when scientific questions were mostly answered by appeal to ancient authorities, Steno was bold enough to trust his own eyes, even when his observations differed from traditional doctrines.

At the urging of Thomas Bartholin, Steno first travelled to Rostock, then to Amsterdam, where he studied anatomy under Gerard Blasius, focusing again on the Lymphatic system. 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 is associated with this structure.[3] 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.[4] Also Descartes was publishing on the working of the brain, and Steno did not think his explanation of the origin of tears was correct. Steno studied the heart, and determined that it was an ordinary muscle.

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