The blessed neuroscientist

Neurosurgery has an article on the 17th Century neuroanatomist Niels Stensen who not only made major contributions to our understanding of the brain but was beatified – the first step to becoming a saint – by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

His work was not restricted to the brain and was a founding figure in both geology and palaeontology, but his willingness to test received wisdom with regard to brain anatomy led him to overturn some key assumptions of the time:

Stensen contested the anatomic assumptions of Descartes’ description of the pineal gland. In L’Homme, Descartes depicted the human body as a machine controlled by the soul, the seat of which was the pineal gland. Descartes described the pineal gland as a mobile structure, surrounded by small arteries and suspended in the ventricles. Although Stensen admired Descartes’ philosophical method, his careful dissection neatly demonstrated the anatomic errors of Descartes on pineal gland, finally solving the ‚Äúmost famous anatomic dispute which this age has produced‚Äù.

Sadly, it was not his work on the pineal gland which earned his holy promotion but his decision to pack in science to become a bishop.

However, the final outcome was much the same as he died in poverty wandering from place to place trying to engage the public.

Link to Neurosurgery on Niels Stensen.

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