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.

He corresponded and debated with a large network of scholars that linked many of the greatest scientists of the seventeenth century, the most prominent being those born or living in the Netherlands such as Swammerdam, Christiaan Huygens, Boerhaave, Spinoza and Comenius.

Network of scholars
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 being founded 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 a 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, convinced as he was that it must ultimately be possible to reconcile the truths of faith with those of science.

In the twentieth century, too, Stensen was a source of inspiration for Catholic academics. Since the 1930s, when the 250th anniversary of his death and the 300th anniversary of his birth were celebrated in quick succession, there had even been attempts to have him beatified; in the Netherlands support for beatification also grew. He was eventually beatified in 1988. At the end of 1958, when, coincidentally, the name of the Niels Stensen Stichting was being agreed upon, a new German biography of Stensen appeared. Its author concluded with a consideration of Stensen's mission today.

Inspiration for Catholic scholars today
Stensen travelled extensively and was always eager to meet others with whom he could debate new discoveries and their implications for his own world view.  He was an enthusiastic and internationally reputed scholar, and at the same time an extremely pious man. This great scholar was an example of someone for whom independent research and thinking were of great importance, without this ultimately leading to any diminution of his faith in God. In short, Stensen still has something to say to current generations of Catholic scholars.