Florence: [Joseph Cocchini], 1667.
First edition of “the first outline of a scientific theory of the development of the earth” (Norman). This is one of the most remarkable of the scientific classics because it made seminal contributions to three quite distinct fields: myology, embryology and geology. In addition to being “The earliest geological treatise” (Garboe, quoted in Garrison-Morton), this work laid the foundation of muscle mechanics, and contains the first recognition of the egg-producing function of the female ovary.
Soon after arriving in Florence early in 1666, Steno began to receive instruction in geometry from Galileo’s last disciple, Vincenzo Viviani. The first part of Elementorum, written in collaboration with Viviani, gave a mathematical account of the operation of the muscles, presented as a series of hypotheses, lemmas, propositions and corollaries. For, as Steno writes in his dedication to Grand Duke Ferdinand, ‘why should we not give to the muscles what astronomers give to the sky, geographers to the earth, and, to take an example from the microcosm, what writers on optics concede to the eyes?’ Provoked by the controversy resulting from the publication of his De Musculis et Glandulis in 1664, this part “dealt chiefly with the questions: Does the muscle increase in size during contraction? Are hardness and swelling of the muscle signs of an increase in volume? These were acute questions at the time, when even Borelli, one of the leading members of the Accademia del Cimento, still believed that swelling was caused by the influx of nerve fluid. Stensen first provided clear concepts and a clearcut terminology of the parts of the muscle. Then he characterized the individual muscle fiber and the muscle itself as a parallepiped bordered by six parallelograms. In the second part of the Elementorum he dealt with objections against the new knowledge about muscles, and lamented the insufficient knowledge of the muscle fluid” (DSB). “Stensen’s treatise also provided much new and important particular knowledge … Stensen makes the observation that muscle fibres of animals can have different colours, like red, grey and white … Stensen clearly defines the phenomenon of the contraction by attributing it to the middle, fleshy part which is quite different from the tendons in structure, thickness and colour. Before Leeuwenhoek, he determines the histological structure of the muscle fibres and divides the muscles into simple and composed ones … A merit of Stensen is also to show that the muscle does not change in volume during the contraction. The invariability of the volume was definitely confirmed in 1887” (Kardel & Maquet, p. 164).
In Florence at the end of October 1666, Steno received the head of a great white shark, Carcharodon rondeletii, that had been caught off Livorno. He made acute observations of its skin, its canals, the brain and nerves, the Lorenzinian ampullae, and the eyes, described in a forty-page dissertation appended to the present work, Canis Carchariae Dissectum Caput. The rows of pointed teeth in the mouth (illustrated on plates 4 and 6) led him to a thorough study of their number and substance. Steno was struck by their resemblance to certain stony objects, called glossopetrae or “tongue stones,” that were found in certain rocks. He knew about glossopetrae from his preceptor Thomas Bartholin and his museum (he had probably also seen them in the Royal Danish Kunstkammer when he was a student in Copenhagen in 1659). Ancient authorities, such as the Roman author Pliny the Elder, had suggested that these stones fell from the sky or from the moon. Others were of the opinion that fossils naturally grew in the rocks. Steno’s contemporary Athanasius Kircher, for example, attributed fossils to a “lapidifying virtue diffused through the whole body of the geocosm.” Steno, however, argued that glossopetrae looked like shark teeth because they were shark teeth, that had come from the mouths of once-living sharks, and come to be buried in mud or sand that was now dry land. There were differences in composition between glossopetrae and living sharks’ teeth, but Steno used the “corpuscular theory of matter”, a forerunner of atomic theory, to argue that fossils could be altered in chemical composition without changing their form. “This attractively simple idea had the enormous disadvantage of requiring an explanation of how sharks’ teeth got deep inland, even to the tops of mountains. Here Steno went further than anyone else and came up with a series of explanations as to how the remains of various kinds of sea creature, including glossopetrae, could be found in the ground, sometimes far from any open stretch of water.
“Like a good Christian, Steno took as historical truth the two biblical accounts of times when the Earth was covered with water — at the Creation and during the Flood. On both occasions, sharks and other marine organisms could have been stranded by the receding floodwaters, he said. More interestingly, he also pointed out that earthquakes could lead to massive changes in the surface of the Earth: part of the sea bed might be thrown upwards, becoming dry land and bringing a host of animals with it. In a few short sentences, Steno outlined a basically correct explanation of the formation of sedimentary rocks and even of the fossilisation of organic matter …
“Over the next few months Steno developed his idea as he and Redi walked around the Tuscan countryside, trying to understand the geological formations they observed. Two years later, in a prodromus (‘advance notice’) to a document about fossils to be wittily entitled 'Dissertation on solids naturally contained within solids', Steno gave a full account of his conception of geological change, including his decisive suggestion that geological layers could be ‘read back’ as a record of the past. His principle of superposition, as it is now called, marked the beginning of geology” (Cobb, p. 99).
In the brief (nine-page) final part of Steno’s book, Historia Dissecti Piscis ex Canum Genere, “Steno described the dissection of a small female dogfish that gives birth to live offspring … in the last couple of pages Steno used a simple analogy and, in a few lines, made a huge breakthrough in humanity’s understanding of generation. First, he described the similarities between the reproductive tract of the viviparous dogfish and that of the egg-laying ray, which he had dissected several years earlier. Primed by his previous work on generation with Thévenot, and by the dissections of the female genital organs in women and sheep which he had carried out in Leiden at the beginning of the decade, Steno then began thinking about the nature of generation in oviparous and viviparous animals, and came to the following amazing conclusion: ‘having seen that the testicles of viviparous animals contain eggs, and having noticed that their uterus opened into the abdomen like an oviduct, I have no doubt that the testicles of women are analogous to the ovary, whatever the manner the eggs themselves, or the matter that they contain, pass from the testicles to the uterus’ … this simple statement was as powerful as the ‘Ex ovo omnia’ that appeared on the frontispiece of Harvey’s De Generatione, yet more far-reaching, for the simple reason that it was more precise. Harvey may have thought that humans came from ‘eggs’, but he was completely unclear about exactly what that ‘egg’ was. Steno not only said that he thought human eggs were like the eggs of other animals; even better, he told his readers where they could be found: in women's ‘testicles’. In the final part of his description, however, he hinted that there might be some difficulty in understanding how eggs — ‘or the matter that they contain’ — got from the ovaries to the uterus. With this, Steno had shrewdly put his finger on a major problem that would cause supporters of the egg theory of human generation no end of difficulties in the following years …
“With his simple suggestion, Steno had exposed the inadequacy of the prevailing idea that the female 'testicles' were equivalents of the male organs that were either degenerate (as Aristotle argued) or that produced a thin female ‘semen’ (as proposed by Galen and by some popular anatomists such as Thomas Raynalde). In so doing he had implied there was a common basis to the generation of all animals, both viviparous and oviparous, vertebrate and invertebrate: all female animals, including women, had ovaries, and within those ovaries were eggs. This view of human generation was radically different from the views that had predominated for two thousand years: it identified the woman’s contribution not as ‘semen’, nor as ‘menstrual blood’, but as an egg” (Cobb, pp. 98-100).
The myological and embryological sections of the present work appear as appendices because the manuscript of the main work was prepared in the spring and summer of 1666, before the famous dissection of a shark that so deeply influenced his scientific career (Kardel & Maquet, p. 159).
Nicolaus Steno (1638-86) was born in Copenhagen. “In 1660 Steno went to Amsterdam to study human anatomy, and while there he discovered the parotid salivary duct, also called Stensen’s duct. In 1665 he went to Florence, where he was appointed physician to Grand Duke Ferdinand II. Steno traveled extensively in Italy, and in 1669 he published his geological observations in De Solido Intra Solidum Naturaliter Contento Dissertationis Prodromus. In this work, a milestone in the literature of geology, he laid the foundations of the science of crystallography … Steno was the first to realize that the Earth’s crust contains a chronological history of geologic events and that the history may be deciphered by careful study of the strata and fossils. He rejected the idea that mountains grow like trees, proposing instead that they are formed by alterations of the Earth’s crust. Hampered by religious intolerance and dogma, Steno was constrained to place all of geologic history within a 6,000-year span. Upon becoming a Roman Catholic in 1667, Steno abandoned science for religion. He took holy orders in 1675, was made a bishop in 1677, and was appointed apostolic vicar of northern Germany and Scandinavia” (Britannica).
G&M 577. Lilly, Notable medical books, p. 79. Norman 2012; NLM/Krivatsy 11432; Osler 4021; Waller 9223. Cobb, Generation, 2006; Garboe, Nicolaus Steno and the foundation of exact geology and crystallography, 1954; Garboe, The earliest geological treatise (1667) by Nicolaus Steno, 1958; Kardel & Maquet (eds.), Nicolaus Steno: Biography and Original Papers of a 17th Century Scientist, 2012.
4to (228 x 166 mm), pp. [viii], 123,  and 7 plates (3 large folding woodcut plates numbered Tabula I-III and 4 full-page engraved plates numbered Tab. [IV], V, [VI], VII). Woodcut Medici arms on title, woodcut illustrations in text. Contemporary vellum,front paste-down and fly-leaf later, inner hinge repaired, title with very light damp stain and spotting effecting the first 5 leaves, Tabula III with old paper repair to verso.