Nicolaus Steno

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Related to Nicolaus Steno: Niels Stensen

Steno, Nicolaus

Steno, Nicolaus (nĭkəlāˈəs stēˈnō), Latinized form of Niels Stensen (nēls stānˈsən), 1638–86, Danish anatomist, geologist, and Roman Catholic prelate. He lived principally in Copenhagen, Paris, and Florence. He investigated the heart, brain, muscles, and glands and discovered (1661) the excretory duct (duct of Steno) of the parotid gland (one of the pairs of salivary glands). He pointed out the true origin of geological strata and of fossils and recorded his studies of crystallization. He was converted from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism in 1667, became a priest in 1675, and vicar apostolic in N Europe in 1677. In his devotion to missionary work he virtually abandoned science. His Earliest Geological Treatise (1667) was translated and edited by Axel Garboe (1960).


See study by A. Cutler (2003).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Steno, Nicolaus


Born Jan. 10, 1638, in Copenhagen; died Nov. 25,1686, in Schwerin. Danish naturalist.

Steno studied at the University of Copenhagen (he did not graduate) and in Amsterdam. He worked in Holland and Italy (Florence). In his study of human anatomy, Steno discovered the duct of the parotid gland (1660). He described the structure of muscles as consisting of longitudinal fibers and made an attempt to explain the mechanical process of muscular contraction (1664). In 1667, Steno established the similarity between the mammalian ovary and the ovary of oviparous animals.

Steno also made contributions to the sciences of crystallography and geology. He established the law of the invariance of crystal angles (Steno’s law) and described the crystals of diamond, quartz, and marcasite. Steno’s name is also associated with the law of the sequence of rock deposition: he showed that the inclined position of the strata of sedimentary rocks is a consequence of tectonic destruction, and he recognized the significance of unconformities.


Belousov, V. V. “Nikolaus Steno—osnovopolozhnik geotektoniki.” Priroda, 1938, issue 5.
Shafranovskii, I. I. Nikolai Stenonkristallograf, geolog, paleonto-log, anatom. Leningrad, 1972.
Eyles, V. A. “Nicolaus Steno, Seventeenth-century Anatomist, Geologist and Ecclesiastic.” Nature, 1954, vol. 174, issue 4418.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The remaining selections include a 1677 conversation between Leibniz and Nicolaus Steno concerning topics related to the Confessio, and several shorter pieces, some of which may have been written for Steno.
The seashell on the mountaintop; how Nicolaus Steno solved an ancient mystery and created a science of the earth.
In 1668, a Danish scientist named Nicolaus Steno published a 78-page book outlining the concept of fossilization and how Earth's history lies within its strata, ideas that would set the course of modern geology.