May 13, 2007

Ole Worm and the Origins of Scientific Thought

Today is the birthday of Ole Worm, born May 13, 1588.

Ole Worm -- it's pronounced "Ola Vorm", by the way -- was a 16th century Danish physician and scientist. He was the son of the mayor of Aarhus, and was remarkably well-educated for his day. After studying in Germany, he was recalled to Copenhagen, where he taught classes in Greek, Latin, medicine, and science. He became the royal physician to King Christian IV, but he also treated the poor, even remaining in the city during several outbreaks of the Black Death.

Worm was quite a student of early Scandinavian literature, and published several definitive treatises on runic texts.

What Worm is primarily remembered for, however, is his investigations into the physical sciences. He believed knowledge was advanced by systematic investigation and detailed observation of the natural world. He assembled a startling collection of curiosities, which was purchased after his death by Frederick III, and entered into the Royal Kunstkammer.

Among the most important of Ole Worm's empirical discoveries:

  • Lemmings were not created spontaneously from the air, as was generally believed at the time, but were mammals born in the usual manner.
  • Unicorns did not exist, but if they did, their horns would be an antidote for poisons. (He based his research on the "poison-reversing" properties of the narwhale horn.)
  • The Bird of Paradise did, in fact, have feet. (Stuffed specimens brought back to Europe up to this point had had their feet removed, which led to the belief that the birds spent their entire lives in the air.)

Ole Worm died in 1654, the victim of a bladder disease.

Illustration: Ole Worm, artist unknown, public domain.
(He looks a little like Orson Welles, don't you think?)

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