Niels Steensen was born in the capital, Copenhagen, of lutheran Denmark i 1638. He studied medicine at the University of Copenhagen during turbulent years when the plague killed a third of the population and when he and other students had to man the city walls to defend the citizens against a Swedish invasion.
Steno, such was his latinized name, studied anatomy in the Netherlands, France and Italy for many years. During these years he made several ground-breaking discoveries concerning glands, the brain, the heart and muscle-geometry. Being a true scientist he also made observations of nature in general and through such a series of observations and publications he is also considered to be the founder of the science of geology.
His enquiring nature also led him to study the foundations of his christian faith. This faith was intimately linked to his work as a scientist, and after thorough theological studies, and also with the encouragement of good friends, he was accepted into the Roman Catholic church. Soon after he was ordained a priest and a bishop and sent to the northern part of Germany.
He died in 1686 after several years of pastoral service, and his corpse was moved to Italy where it is buried in a sarcophagus in the San Lorenzo basilica, Florence. Pope John Paul II beatified Steno in 1988.
John-Erik Stig Hansen, MD, DSc