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Worm, Ole (or Olaus Wormius)


(b. Aarhus, Jutland, Denmark, 13 May 1588; d. Copenhagen, Denmark, 7 September 1654)

natural history.

Worm was the son of the mayor of Aarhus and a descendant of refugees from religious persecution in Holland. He received his basic education in Aarhus, then attended schools and universities including Marburg, Montepellier, Strasbourg, and Padua and received the doctorate in medicine at Basel in 1611. He then practiced medicine in London until 1611, when he was appointed professor of humanities at the University of Copenhagen. In 1615 he became professor of Greek, and in 1624 professor of medicine, which chair he retained until his death thirty years later. He also was several times elected rector of the university. Worm continued to practice medicine throughout his life and was personal physicianto King Christian V. He discovered and described the small bones that occasionally occur along the lambdoid suture of the human skull; they are still called Wormian bones. A conscientious physician, Worm remained in Copenhagen to tend his patients during epidemics when many had fled the city; in the plague of 1654 he caught the disease and died of it.

A gifted polymath, Worm collected many types of objects, especially those of natural history and man–made artifacts, which he carefully arranged and classified, following a rigorous method: he also prepared a detailed catalog, published in 1655 by his son William as Museum Wormianum. His museum, which became one of the great attractions of Copenhagen, is illustrated in Museum Wormianum: an assortment of bizarre and exotic objects, antiques, and stuffed animals. It included the skull of a narwhal properly described; previously narw3hal tusks had been supposed to be the horns of unicorns. There were many prehistoric stone implements, but Worm did not conclude that they belonged to a stone age and were artifacts; he labeled them “Cerauniae, so called because they are thought to fall to earth in flashes of lightning” – a belief widely held at that time. This is curious, because WOrm recognized the tip of a stone harpoon point embedded in a marine animal found in Greenland, and also knew of stone tools and weapons from America. On his death, Worm’s museum passed to King Frederik III and was installed in the old castle at Copenhagen. The king planned a new building for Worm’s collections and library opposite Christiansborg Palace; but the second story, housing the museum, was not finished until after the King’s death in 1680. It was open to the public on payment of an admission charge, and was one of the first such museums.

Worm was interested in Danish antiquities and published accounts of them in his Monumenta Dancia and his Fasti Danici (1643). Particularly interested in runic inscriptions, he traveled extensively to visit runic sites, and collected information through correspondence. In 1626 he arranged for a royal circular to instruct all clergy to submit a report on any runic inscriptions, burial sites, or other historical remains known in their parishes. In 1639 a gold horn was discovered in Jutland: and Worm, with his greatknowledge of runes and antiquities, was asked to described and study it; he did so, publishing De aureo cornu in 1641. This gold horn, and another discovered a hundred years later, were stolen from the royal collections in 1802 and destroyed. Worm’s account ofthe horn, and the runes and designs on it, are therefore of great importance.

Glyn Daniel

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