Steenstrup, (Johannes) Japetus Smith
STEENSTRUP, (JOHANNES) JAPETUS SMITH
(b. Vang, Denmark, 8 March 1813; d. Copenhagen, Denmark, 20 June 1897)
Steenstrup was the son of a vicar in northern Jutland; from his youth he hunted, fished, and collected fossils. Although he took no university degree, he taught for six years at the Sorö Academy, where in 1842 he published two works that brought him scientific fame. The first of these, “Geognostisk-geologisk Undersögelse af Skovmoserne Vidnesdam og Lillemose i det nordlige Sjaelland...,” is a classic work in Scandinavian bog research. In it, Steenstrup compared the results of his own observations on the forest bogs of northern Zealand and on the bogs of the Danish forests, moors, and fens. He noted the postglacial succession and alteration of flora in the bogs and, recognizing that the formation of peat had taken at least five thousand years, was inclined to believe that such changes reflected changes in climate. “We may,” he wrote, “consider the bogs as annual reviews in which we can see how the flora and fauna of our country have developed and changed.... The further we go back in time, the colder was the climate.”
The second major publication of 1842 was Om Forplantning og Udvikling gjennem vexlende Generationsraekker, en saeregen form for Opfostringen i de lavere Dyreklasser, Steenstrup’s comprehensive presentation of the form of reproduction that he called “alternation of generations,” that is, the alternation of asexual and sexual reproduction, or metagenesis. This phenomenon had previously been described by Chamisso, but Steenstrup included a greater number of observations, based on a significantly wider range of subjects, and provided an important chapter on its meaning. Steenstrup’s growing reputation, based largely upon these two publications, won him an appointment as professor of zoology at the University of Copenhagen, where he taught from 1846 until 1885.
Steenstrup returned to the study of Scandinavian fossils in 1850 when, with the archaeologist Jens Worsaae, he demonstrated that the shell heaps on the Danish seashores were man-made. He coined the term Kjökkenmödding (“kitchen midden”) to describe these 4,000–7,000-year-old remains. He also did important taxonomic work on the Cephalopoda, and described many new genera. In a memoir of 1856, “Hektokotyldannelsen hos Octopodslaegterne Argonauta og Tremoctopus...,” he reported the surprising finding that the arm of the male octopus is modified to fulfill a reproductive function. In addition, he published a number of short papers on a wide variety of zoological subjects.
It is possible that Steenstrup might have accomplished more if he had chosen to concentrate on fewer topics. His significance to science, however, should not be measured by his writings alone; rather, it should be remembered that for a period of fifty years he initiated and guided Danish research in natural history. His work was influenced strongly by the German school of natural science, and, although he corresponded with Darwin (they had both worked with Cirripedias), Steenstrup was never able to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. In a letter to him of 1881, Darwin expressed disappointment that this should have been so.
I. Original Works. A list of Steenstrup’s writings, containing 239 titles, is S. Dahl, “Bibliographia Steenstrupiana,” in H. F. E. Jungersen and J. E. B. Warming, Mindeskrift i Anledning of Hundredaaret for Japetus Steenstrups Fødsel, I (Copenhagen, 1914). Among the most important are “Geognostisk-geologisk Undersögelse af Skovmoserne Vidnesdam og Lillemose i det nordlige Sjaelland, ledsaget af sammenlignende Bemaerkninger, hentede fra Danmarks Skov-, Kjaer- og Lyngmoser i Almindelighed,” in Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskabs Skrifter, 4th ser., 9 (1842), 17 – 120; Om Forplantning og Udvikling gjennem vexlende Generationsraekker, en saeregen form for Opfostringen i de lavere Dyreklasser (Copenhagen, 1842); and “Hektokotyldannelsen hos Octopodslaegterne Argonauta og Tremoctopus, oplyst ved lignende Dannelser hos Blaeksprutterne i Almindelighed,” in Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskabs Skrifter, 5th ser., 4 (1856), 185 – 216.
II. Secondary Literature. See C. Lütken, “Steenstrup,” in Natural Science, 11 (1897), 159–169; and R. Spärck, “Japetus Steenstrup,” in V. Meisen, ed., Prominent Danish Scientists Through the Ages (Copenhagen, 1932), 115–119.