Paracelsus: Aggressive and Outspoken Medieval Medical Practitioner
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Paracelsus (November 11 or December 17, 1493 – 24 September, 1541) was a Swiss alchemist, physician, astrologer, and philosopher. Born Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he took the name Paracelsus later in life, meaning “beside or similar to Celsus,” an early Roman physician. During his travels in Egypt, Arabia, and the Holy Land, he observed the methods of physicians, chemists, and spiritual healers there, and applied this experience to his own research. Rejecting the theories of Galen, which had been the foundation for European medicine during the Middle Ages, Paracelsus taught instead that health depended on the harmony between man and nature, and on the balances of certain chemicals within the body. He regarded Nature as the One, a living organism, and believed in the natural healing power present in Nature and the human body. A physician, he said, must have wisdom and certain spiritual qualities in order to be able to cure his patients, being “endowed with no less compassion and love than God extends toward man.” All knowledge could be discovered by intuition, searching within the human mind, because man was a microcosm of the Universe, and the principles operating within the Universe operated in a corresponding way within man.
Paracelsus’ aggressive manner of teaching and his outspoken criticism of traditional medical theory made him unwelcome in medieval universities, and only recently have his contributions to medicine been recognized. He pioneered the use of chemistry in medicine, developed the use of mercury to cure syphilis, recognized the role of minerals in certain illnesses, coined the word “alcohol,” and named the element zinc.
Paracelsus was born in 1493 at Sihlbrücke, near Einsiedeln, Switzerland, of a Swabian father and a Swiss mother. His paternal grandfather had been a commander of the Teutonic Knights and had campaigned in the Holy Lands. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, studied metallurgy, alchemy, and medicine, and eventually served as physician to the Benedictine abbey at Einsieden where his mother, Elsa, was a bonded servant. Paracelsus was their only son. After his mother’s death, when Paracelsus was nine, his father moved the family to Villach in Carinthia, where at the time of his death in 1534, he was city physician. Later, Paracelsus related that his father had introduced him to medicine by teaching him about healing herbs and minerals, and about alchemy and the smelting and refining of ores.
At the age of sixteen Paracelsus entered the University of Basel and began to study alchemy, surgery, and medicine. He was already familiar with the works of Isaac Hollandus. His education included the study of Platonism, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology, and was influenced by the German humanists. He studied alchemy under Joannes Trithemius (1462–1516), Abbot of Sponheim, and learned about metallurgy in the laboratories of Sigmund Fugger at Schwaz. In 1516, Paracelsus was forced to leave Basel hurriedly because of trouble over his studies of necromancy. He began to travel through Germany, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, visiting several famous universities. It is not certain whether he ever completed his degree; he may have gained his doctorate from the University of Ferrara. He visited Russia, where he was taken prisoner by the Tartars and became a favorite at the court of the Grand Cham. He accompanied the Cham’s son on an official visit to Constantinople, and journeyed to Egypt, Arabia, and the Holy Land. Everywhere he went he sought out medical practitioners, and he learned advanced techniques, unknown in Europe, from Arab chemists. He later advised his students, “A doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and other such outlaws and take lessons from them.”
He received training as a surgeon with the Hapsburg armies, where he had an opportunity to study the treatment of wounds. At that time it was customary to cauterize wounds with hot oil, and to apply various ointments, a treatment which often resulted in infection and amputation or death. Hearing the soldiers say that a wound healed better when the dressing was applied to the weapon that caused the wound, rather than to the wound itself, Paracelsus experimented. He observed that simply cleaning and draining a wound was a more successful treatment than the usual ointments, and concluded, “If you prevent infection, nature will heal the wound all by herself.”
In 1526, Paracelsus returned to Strasbourg, where he joined the guild of surgeons, and was appointed as city physician of Basel, probably through the influence of the theologian Joannes Oecolampadius and the publisher Joannes Frobenius. This position included the responsibility of lecturing on medicine at the University of Basel. Paracelsus strongly criticized apothecaries, antagonized the medical faculty, and aroused the jealousy of other medical practitioners. He published a pamphlet in which he vehemently opposed the use of the theories of Galen and Avicenna, calling them useless and saying that those who followed them could not possibly diagnose diseases accurately. The outraged medical faculty banned Paracelsus from lecturing, but he demanded to be allowed to lecture, saying that he had never requested their approval. He lectured in German, rather than the usual Latin, and introduced new ideas on the preparation of medicines, the use of minerals to treat illness, and the diagnosis of disease through analysis of the urine and the pulse. During the students’ celebration of St. John’s Day in midsummer, he burned the Canon of Avicenna, then the classic medical text, in a public square to demonstrate his opinion of it. He lost a court case over a medical fee he had charged a patient, and was sentenced to prison. Just eight months after he began teaching, he fled Basel in the middle of the night and went to Colmar.
The rest of his life was spent traveling around Europe, practicing medicine where he could and composing several works. In 1529 he was at Nuremberg and soon afterwards at Beritzhausen and Amberg; in 1531 at St. Gall and later at Innsbruck; in 1534 at Sterzing and Meran; in 1535 at Bad Pfäffers, Augsburg; and in 1537 at Vienna, Presburg, and Villach. In 1530 he attracted the animosity of the medical community in Nuremberg, but successfully treated several cases of elephantiasis. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartzney (The Great Surgery Book) was published, and brought him some fame. He was invited to Salzburg, Austria, by the Prince Palatine, Duke Ernst of Bavaria, who had an interest in alchemy, and died there in 1541 after a brief illness, in a small room at the White Horse Inn. His body was interred, at his request, in the graveyard of St. Sebastian. A tomb was erected by an unknown person in the porch of St. Sebastian’s Church in 1752. A portrait on the monument is that of the father of Paracelsus.
Thought and Works
Paracelsus’ flamboyant nature, the stories of dramatic cures, and his teachings about alchemy and astrology caused some to regard him as a magician, and today he is still associated with occult practices. Paracelsus himself rejected supernatural magic and instead emphasized the magical healing powers with which God had endowed Nature. His works evidence careful experimentation and consistent observation. During his lifetime his influence was felt in Wittenberg and a few German schools, and entirely disregarded in Italy, but more recently his many contributions to the sciences of medicine and pharmacology have been recognized.
Paracelsus dictated most of his works, and often gave them to his friends to have them printed, with the result that his name was sometimes misappropriated. It is necessary to distinguish between works that were genuinely written by Paracelsus and those that were falsely attributed to him. His style of writing was simple, clear, and direct. A detailed list of the authentic and unauthentic writings of Paracelsus can be found in Albr. von Haller, “Bibliotheca medicinæ practicæ,” II (Basle, 1777, 2–12). His most important works include “Opus Paramirum” I, II (containing the system of Paracelsus); “Drei Bücher von den Franzosen” (a work on syphilis and venereal diseases); and “Grosse Wundarznei, über das Bad Pfäffers, über die Pest in Sterzing” (The Great Surgery Book).
Man as Microcosm
Paracelsus regarded Nature as a living organism and an expression of the One Life, and man as a microcosm of Nature and the Universe. He believed that health arose from the harmony between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (Nature). Man and the Universe were essentially one in nature, and there was a profound relationship between every part of nature and its corresponding part in man. In order to truly understand the causes of disease, a doctor must first be a philosopher. He said, “Philosophy—the true perception and understanding of cause and effect—is the mother of the physician.” All objects in the Universe, the macrocosm, were represented in the mind of man, the microcosm, and therefore all knowledge could be discovered by searching within.
In his practice of medicine, Paracelsus used astronomy and astrology to interpret the ways in which the movements of the universe acted on the physical body. He also applied this principle to the use of minerals in his medicines, with the theory that “every metal and every plant possesses certain qualities that can attract corresponding planetary influences.” Paracelsus also held that the inner nature of plants may be discovered by their outer forms, or signatures, a theory later elaborated by Jakob Boehme.
The True Physician
Paracelsus considered the art of healing a sacred and noble profession, and outlined the qualities of a true physician. The first quality was wisdom, not knowledge gained from books, but an understanding of Nature which came from within. A physician should use his intuition and rely on his own experience, rather than blindly accepting what was taught by others. He also said that a physician should be an astrologist, in order to understand the principles of the universe which corresponded to the principles of the body; and an alchemist, in order to understand the chemistry of life. Another important quality was empathy: “Thus the physician must be endowed with no less compassion and love than God extends toward man.” Paracelsus practiced his principle that a physician should treat everyone fairly, offering his services to rich and poor alike and charging them according to their ability to pay.
The most important quality of all, according to Paracelsus, was purity and singleness of purpose. A physician’s moral character must be beyond reproach, because that had more effect on a patient than any medicine. He should not be ambitious, greedy, vain, conceited, envious, or unchaste because these characteristics are incompatible with the divine wisdom possessed by a true physician. A physician must be physically pure, intellectually honest, and a person of integrity.
Contributions to Medicine
Paracelsus did not include the study of human anatomy, which was then spreading through Italy as part of the humanist movement, in his system of medicine. As a consequence, his theory was incomplete and did not bring about significant changes in the field of medicine. He did, however, make contributions in many areas. Paracelsus believed that a physician should proceed from the cause to the effect, instead of beginning a diagnosis with the body itself, saying, “The physician should proceed from external things, not from man.” He believed in treating the cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms.
…the more essential Anatomy is the Anatomy of the living inner man. The latter is the kind of Anatomy which is the most important for the physician to know. If we know the Anatomy of the inner man, we know the Prima Materia, and may see the nature of the disease as well as the remedy. (Paramirum)
Paracelsus believed the practice of medicine should be based on experience, observation, and experiment. He was the first to record that inhaled dust, rather than subterranean spirits, was the cause of lung disease in miners. He associated the occurrence of goiter with a lack of vital elements in drinking water, and found a connection between goiter in adults and cretinism (a condition caused by a malfunction of the thyroid gland) in their children. Paracelsus identified certain diseases as being caused by toxic elements ingested or inhaled into the patient’s body, a concept that later led to the discovery of bacteria and viruses as the cause of disease.
In medieval Europe, the insane were thought to be possessed by demonic spirits; Paracelsus regarded insanity as an illness and urged that insane persons be treated with kindness. He also taught that a person’s state of mind had a powerful effect on their physical body, and that many symptoms and diseases had psychological causes.
Galenic Theory and Paracelsus
Medieval medicine rigidly adhered to the medical theories of Galen, that all diseases were caused by an imbalance of the four humors in the body: Blood, phlegm, and yellow and black gall (humoral pathology). Health could be restored by correcting the imbalance, often using techniques such as bleeding, purging, or sweating. Paracelsus rejected this theory entirely, explaining instead that pathological changes in the body were caused by external entities: Ens astrorum (cosmic influences, including climate and geographical location); ens veneni (toxic substances, which would include the causes of contagious diseases, infections, and diseases caused by poor diet or environmental poisons); ens naturale et spirituale (defective physical or mental constitution); and ens deale (an affliction sent by Providence). Diseases such as rheumatism, gout, and dropsy, which were caused by the over-accumulation of harmful substances in the body, should be treated by expelling the poisons, and restoring the vital functions of the organs.
Paracelsus was a pioneer in applying chemistry to medical science. Medieval apothecaries created medicines by combining herbs and mineral ores known to have a beneficial effect on certain ailments. Paracelsus identified the specific beneficial ingredient in each remedy, and used the alchemical processes of solution, evaporation, precipitation, and distillation, to purify it and make tinctures and essences which could be administered in controlled doses. He created a number of metallic remedies, including mercury to treat syphilis, and developed medicines using antinomy, sulfur, mercury, and potassium salts. He also dissolved opium in alcohol and called it “laudanum”; it was used for centuries as an effective painkiller. When his critics said that his medicines were poison, he replied, “The dose makes the poison.” His intent was to create a specific remedy for every disease.
Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines. (Holmyard 1990, 170)
Paracelsus recognized the value of mineral waters, especially the Pfäffer water. He coined the word “alcohol,” and in 1526 he used the name “zink” for the element zinc, based on the sharp-pointed appearance of its crystals after smelting and the old German word “zinke” for pointed. The London Pharmacopoeia later adopted his method for naming new chemical compounds based on their components. Paracelsus’ motto was “alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” (“let no man belong to another that can belong to himself”).
- Debus, Alan G. 1977. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 vols. New York: Science History Publications.
- Holmyard, Eric John. 1990. Alchemy. Dover Publications. ISBN: 0486262987
- Pagel, Walter. 1958. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel and New York: S. Karger.
- Pagel, Walter. 1984. The Smiling Spleen: Paracelsianism in Storm and Stress. Basel: S. Karger.
- Paracelsus; Waite, A. E. (trans.). The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast. London: J. Elliott, 1894; reprint New York: Random House, 1976.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 01.12.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.