Ole Worm

I was prone to nominative determinism for more than half a century before I knew what it meant. A children’s biography of Grieg in my primary school library (who now remembers this series by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher, which included Franz Schubert and his Merry Friends and Sebastian Bach, The Boy from Thuringia?) had a famous violinist say to the young Edvard, ‘You have made the voice of Norway sing!’

The violinist in question was called Ole Bull, and I haven’t since been able to stop myself seeing a elderly cow with a stringed instrument, as though the cast of ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’ had swopped roles. This was very unfair to the Norwegian virtuoso (1810–80), who looks most normal and genial, and who, I was riveted to discover a few minutes ago, composed ‘Sæterjentens Søndag’  (‘The Shepherd-Girl’s Sunday’), a song which we sang in English at said primary school, and which I sentimentally adored (at the time).

Ole Bull – it’s always nice to see somebody smiling in a nineteenth-century photograph!

Ole Worm (or in the Latin of the learned, Olaus Wormius) is another case in point. I knew that he was a Danish physician who had a cabinet of curiosities not unlike that of the Tradescants, his contemporaries, but my mental image was of, if not an actual worm, at least a keen student of the phylum Annelida. I resolved to improve on this state of basic ignorance when I learned from the estimable @liamsims that CUL owns a copy of the third edition of his four-book Musei Wormiani Historia, the catalogue of his collection, published in 1655, the year after his death, by Elsevier of Leiden.

Ole Worm in 1626. The inscription reads: ‘The sculptor has engraved the external shadow of your nature, Worm, but he was not able to depict your mind, nor would it have been fitting. Why not, you ask? Because you, with your learned hand, could do this better yourself. It taught you to be a doctor and a philosopher, and with it you are the first to teach the Danes about their own history.’

Worm was born on 13 May 1588 in Aarhus, Demark. His father Willum served as mayor of the city, although his father Johan had been a Lutheran refugee from the Netherlands, escaping Catholic persecution. He clearly thrived, becoming a magistrate and leaving considerable wealth to his son.

As a student, Ole Worm moved around Europe. If I read his biography in Danish correctly (a big ‘if’!), he began at the Aarhus grammar school; he then continued his education all over Europe: Lüneburg, Emmerich, Marburg to read theology in 1605, then Giessen, Strasburg, Basel, Padua, Montpellier, Paris and Leiden (all having schools of medicine); and he visited England as well.

Marburg, from an 1572 book of maps. The Philipps-Universität Marburg, founded in 1527, is the oldest surviving Protestant university in the world.

He qualified in medicine in Basel in 1611 (his dissertation was on almost all the (then known) diseases in the world and their cures), and in 1617 he took a master’s degree back at the university of Copenhagen, where he spent the rest of his life teaching Latin, Greek, physics and medicine, also becoming director of the university’s Botanic Garden in 1621. He married Dorothea, the daughter of a colleague, the mathematician and physicist Thomas Fincke (1561–1656), who in his 1583 Geometria rotundi  gave names to the trigonometric functions secant and tangent. (This may mean more to some of you than it does to me …)

The frontispiece of Fincke’s book.
Ole Worm with his wife Dorothea. (Credit: the National Museum, Copenhagen)

As well as his teaching responsibilities, Worm had the distinction of being personal physician to King Christian IV, the long-reigning (and witch-burning) brother-in-law of James I and VI. (It is interesting to speculate that Worm may have met the composer and lutenist John Dowland while the latter was in the king’s service …)

King Christian IV of Denmark, painted by Pieter Isaacsz (1569–1625) about 1611–16.
(Credit: The Museum of National History, Frederiksborg)

But the wide range of Worm’s interests is revealed by his ‘Museum’, which covered (ranging from inanimate to animate) geological specimens and fossils, plants, animals and birds, and archaeological and ethnographic items (including material from the New World). He wrote in 1639: ‘I have collected various things on my journeys abroad, and from India and other very remote places I have been brought various things: samples of soil, rocks, metals, plants, fish, birds, and land-animals, that I conserve well with the goal of, along with a short presentation of the various things’ history, also being able to present my audience with the things themselves to touch with their own hands and to see with their own eyes, so that they may themselves judge how that which is said fits with the things, and can acquire a more intimate knowledge of them all.’

The frontispiece of the Musei Wormiani Historia, printed in Leiden by Elsevier in 1655, showing part of the collection in its original setting.

Another interest was runic inscriptions, on which he published three works: Fasti Danici  (a chronology of Denmark) in 1626, Runir, seu Danica literatura antiquissima (‘Runes: or the Most Ancient Writings of Denmark’) in 1636, and (Danicorum Monumentorum Libri Sex (‘Six Volumes on Danish Monuments’) in 1643. In the latter book, he depicted and transcribed runic engravings, many of which are now lost.

A narwal’s skull and tusk, from the catalogue, and (below), a rather less accurate, though beguiling, image of the live beast, with whom you are advised not to mess.

He also determined that there was no such thing as a unicorn (how disappointing for our present government!), the supposed horns belonging in fact to narwhals. On the other hand, he also experimented on deliberately poisoned animals to see if ground narwhal horn would cure them: happily they seem to have survived, though it is not clear if Worm was convinced by this result. Other myths which he cleared up included the view that lemmings were spontaneously generated from the air, and that birds-of-paradise have un-birdlike feet. I was also delighted to see that he mentions in the catalogue the vegetable lamb of Tartary, as ‘Boramez’, but sadly it is not illustrated.

One of his illustrations is especially remarkable: he had a pet Great Auk, which used to wander round his house, and his drawing of it, engraved for the book, is believed to be the only image of the bird ever drawn from life. The frontispiece of the Museum Wormianum (above) gives a view of his collection: the human figure at the back is an automaton, which could apparently move and pick things up. It is dressed in what was believed at the time to be Native American costume.

Also included in the catalogue are various prayers in Latin, including an exorcism which could be used to get rid of mice or other wildlife which preyed on crops, and dozens of enchanting, if not totally realistic, animals and plants.

Worm died of the plague in 1654 – unlike many of his colleagues, he had stayed in Copenhagen to try to help the sick. His collection was purchased by King Frederick III, son of Christian IV, who built a museum to hold it, admitting the public on payment of a fee. Some of the items still survive in the royal collection and in the Danish Natural History Museum, while in 2004, the artist Rosamond Purcell recreated the scene on the frontispiece, which is now on display in the Geological Museum in Copenhagen. I think we can safely assume that Worm would have approved.


This entry was posted in Bibliography, Biography, Botany, Cambridge, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing, The Netherlands and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ole Worm

  1. Leana Pooley says:

    I did enjoy reading this. What a hero he was, full of curiosity. So sad he died of the plague – rather a fitting time to be reading about him.


  2. Fascinating as ever


  3. Thank you, both! The story does indeed resonate today, for all sorts of reasons, not least, what should a museum be/do. Worm’s idea that his collection was for teaching rather than just amrvelling was way ahead of its time.


  4. Pingback: A Lost Museum | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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