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    Niels Stensen

    The Dane Niels Stensen (1638–1686), also known by his Latinised name of Nicolaus Steno, was a brilliant anatomist, natural scientist and geologist. After studying medicine in Denmark, he left for the Netherlands, where he studied and carried out research in Leiden and Amsterdam. While working in the Netherlands he obtained his place in the academic world.


    Stensen corresponded and debated with a large network that linked many of the greatest scientists of the seventeenth century, including Swammerdam, Christiaan Huygens, Boerhaave, Spinoza and Comenius. He also corresponded with scholars such as Boyle, Leibniz and Locke, among many others. The importance of Stensen's anatomical and geological discoveries was immediately recognised by the new scientific academies, societies and distinguished journals throughout Europe. He travelled frequently, and as the protégée of the Medici, the Florentine banking family that acted as maecenas to countless artists and scientists, he spent many years in Italy doing research.

    Inner struggles

    However, practicing science caused a significant inner struggle for Stensen. His anatomical discoveries demolished many existing theories about how organisms work and about reproduction among humans and animals. The Creation was shown to be completely different from what classical and religious authorities had been teaching for centuries. His discoveries in the field of geology, in particular, prompted serious doubts about the veracity of ideas based on the Bible concerning the age of the earth, the historical authenticity of the flood, etc.

    Reconciling faith and science

    Stensen's findings led him to doubt the possibility of understanding ultimate truths through scientific means, and he embraced religion. By origin a Lutheran, he converted to Catholicism around the age of thirty and led an extremely devout life. Towards the end of his life, he was appointed as bishop in Germany, where, after several years, he died of the deprivations he imposed on himself. Though an intensely religious man at the end of his life, he never ceased to carry out scientific research. He was convinced that it should ultimately be possible to reconcile the truths of faith with those of science.

    ©2024, Niels Stensen Fellowship