Nicolaus Steno: Biography and Original Papers of a 17th Century Scientist ed. by Troels Kardel, Paul Maquet (review)
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Reviewed by
Troels Kardel and Paul Maquet, eds. Nicolaus Steno: Biography and Original Papers of a 17th Century Scientist. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2013. xxxviii + 739 pp. Ill. $139.00 (978-3-642-25078-1).

Niels Steensen (Nicolaus Steno) was a major seventeenth-century Danish man of science who deserves continual in-depth historical study. He was the author of fundamental works in anatomy and geology, such as Elementorum miologiae specimen and De solido intra solidum prodromus. He was connected with prominent European scholars such as Thomas Bartholin, and with important scientific academies, including the Tuscan Accademia del Cimento. Reflecting the religious tensions typical of the time, he was educated in a Lutheran family, converted to Catholicism when he established himself in Tuscany, and finished his life as a bishop in northern Germany. The volume edited by Kardel and Maquet is thus a welcome contribution to the knowledge of the life and work of this very interesting figure.

The volume is divided into three parts. The first part is the English translation of a biography of Steno written in German by Gustav Scherz and originally published in 1987. The second part is the English translation of Steno’s scientific papers, based on the edition of Nicolai Stenonis opera philosophica made by Vilhelm Maar in 1910. The third part includes the transcription of Steno’s anatomical [End Page 342] works in their original languages together with Maar’s scholarly annotations to his edition of Steno’s opera. The last part, however, is not to be found in the volume, but can be downloaded from the publisher’s website (which was unfortunately under maintenance in August 2014, when this review was written). In fact, the volume is more complex than this brief description indicates, as the two editors have added their own notes to Scherz’s biography and Steno’s works, have included new material such as a short discussion of “Stensen’s myology after Scherz” by Kardel (pp. 171–72), and have made some personal choices. For instance, they have omitted those original texts that can be found otherwise in print or in the web. Although these choices are clearly stated in the preface to the volume, some of them are rather unconvincing, like the decision to leave out the translation of some pages of the Elementorum miologiae specimen because their content is “without basis in observations” (p. 550, note a).

According to the volume’s editors, Scherz’s work is the most exhaustive biography on Steno. It is a detailed reconstruction of Steno’s family and education, the periods he spent in Holland and France in the early 1660s, and his ten-year stay in Tuscany, interrupted by a long journey in Europe and a brief stay in Denmark. In 1677 his life changed abruptly, when he was nominated a Catholic bishop and began his religious career, which led him to several places in Germany until his death, in November 1686. This last part of Steno’s life was treated by Scherz in a second volume of his biography, which is not however included in Kardel and Maquet’s edition. This is a pity, and one can agree with the editor’s call for a new edition of the second volume of Scherz’s biography and of Steno’s theological papers.

Scherz’s knowledge of Steno’s life and work is extensive, based not only on the published works of the Danish scholar, but also on the latter’s manuscripts and correspondence, which he also partly edited. His main interest, however, is for Steno’s religious ideas and trajectory from Lutheranism to Catholicism, which he, who was a Catholic priest, considers full of significance and exemplar. Indeed, he has been one of the main promoters of Steno’s beatification, which eventually came in 1988. Other aspects of Steno’s science are less developed in Scherz’s biography, as for instance his research on glands, whose implications were much wider than a simple dispute about who first discovered the parotid duct, on which Scherz mainly focuses. As a whole, however, Scherz’s biography is a good introduction to Steno’s life and work, with continuous references to his published writings...