Bent Juel-Jensen

In the Danish town of Odense
, the tomb of Saint Canute IV, who had tried to conquer William the Conqueror, has a bullet mark from a clash with Nazi occupiers. Bent Juel-Jansen (1922-2006) fought in the Danish resistance, helping Allied airmen escape, and later served two years in the navy, having been born in that same birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, patron of sufferers from infectious diseases. His father, a teacher, collected books, and this became a lifelong passion in his son who attended the Cathedral School close by Canute’s tomb, and completed medical studies in the University of Copenhagen, having established a pen-pal correspondence with Mark Maples, an English boy at Harrow who was killed in an air crash while serving in the Air Fleet Arm. Juel-Jensen went to England and married his friend’s twin sister, Mary. He kept a photograph of her brother in his study which was filled with rare books, medical tomes, lepidoptery, stuffed birds, stamps, coins, and animal skeletons. Near the end of his life he would edit a Latin study on curiosity cabinets, "Musaeum Clausum," but none could have been more curious than his own.

Taking two more degrees in Oxford, he studied physiology in New College and pioneered studies in herpes, shingles, and glandular fever, and worked with Sir George Pickering on vascular disease, saving the life of a friend by his diagnosis of fungal septicemia. Oxford created for him the position of University Medical Officer and as President of the British Student Health Association he set the model for systematic student health care in a university which had gone some seven centuries without paying much attention to it. He named a social residence for medical students for William Osler, physician and bibliophile, and his other hero was also a surgeon and book collector, Sir Geoffrey Keynes. By this time he had an international reputation for knowledge of Elizabethan dramatists and Renaissance incunabula, assembling an unsurpassed collection of Drayton, and purchasing a rare copy of the 1633 quarto of "The Spanish Tragedy" just months before dying from the effects of a stroke, bidding a huge price at auction although he could no longer speak. Having transited from the state church of Denmark to that of England, he continued to collect Danish books about missionaries in Iceland, Greenland, and the colony at Tranquebar in India.

The honorary fellow of the Royal Geographical Society established medical centers in Bhutan and Kenya and accompanied the botanist Oleg Polunin to Ethiopia in 1973 where to his many languages he added Amharic and the Coptic liturgical language, Ge’ez , preserving priestly books and collecting Aksumite coinage dating to the third century. Four hundred of these gold coins were his bequeathal to the Ashmolean Museum. When Hailie Selassie was overthrown, his knowledge of anti-Nazi sabotage techniques served him in fighting the Mengesha regime and succoring refugees. Having fathered one daughter, he adopted the Ethiopian son of Ras Mangashia, governor of Tigray whose rock-hewn churches he had helped excavate.

In more peaceful residence back in Oxford, graciously housed in Headington, he was Fellow and Dean of Degrees in St. Cross College, from which on one sunny day in his brilliant convocation gown he led me and a line of graduate students down the curving High Street to the Sheldonian Theatre for matriculation, like a proud hen leading the brood. Juel-Jensen called himself "midwife and undertaker to countless students" and could be extravagantly kind despite intimidating flashes of temper which may have inspired his interest in hypertension. I shall take to my grave his voluble rage when correcting my pronunciation of the philosopher about whom I was writing a book: "You cahnt say Kahnt. It is Kant. " I stood next to this enemy of tobacco one day in a food shop when, attired in his academicals, he approached a man about to light a cigarette, grabbed the offending object, and ground it into the palm of the stunned man’s hand. Music soothed him, and he was patron of the New College choir school, regularly listening in prayerful repose as the choristers’ voices trembled the sacred vaults built by William of Wykeham. Religion to him was a practical thing, and he rebuilt a church on St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides while also investigating a pox off the Pembrokeshire coast.


To a list of names on a marble tablet in the Bodleaian Library beginning with the 15th-century Humfredus Dux Gloucestriae is now added Benedictus Juel-Jensen. He would not have needed me to tell him that the present Duke of Gloucester’s wife, Birgitte, was born in Odense.

Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available from Crossroads Publishing.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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