Paracelsus (/ˌpærəˈsɛlsəs/; born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 11 November or 17 December 1493 – 24 September 1541) was a Swiss German Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist. He founded the discipline of Toxicology. He is also known as a revolutionary for insisting upon using observations of nature, rather than looking to ancient texts, in open and radical defiance of medical practice of his day. He is also credited for giving zinc its name, calling it zincum. Modern psychology often also credits him for being the first to note that some diseases are rooted in psychological illness.
His personality was stubborn and independent. He grew progressively more frustrated and bitter as he became more embattled as a reformer.
“Paracelsus”, meaning “next (in his status as physician) to Celsus” or “beyond Celsus”, refers to the Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus from the 1st century, known for his tract on medicine.
Paracelsus’ most important legacy is likely his critique of the scholastic methods in medicine, science and theology. Although these faculties did not exist separate from each other during his time, his attitudes towards the uncritical copy of the teachings of the old Fathers of Medicine, such as Avicenna and Averroes, without categorically denying their obvious merits, was his first and foremost achievement for independent and empirical approaches to research and teaching. Much of his theoretical work does not withstand modern scientific thought, but his insights laid the foundation for a more dynamic approach in the medical sciences.
Monument to Paracelsus in Beratzhausen, Bavaria
Memorial in Einsiedeln, Switzerland
Paracelsus was born and raised in the village of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, was a Swabian (German) chemist and physician. His mother was Swiss; she presumably died in his childhood. In 1502 the family moved to Villach, Carinthia where Paracelsus’ father worked as a physician, attending to the medical needs of the pilgrims and inhabitants of the cloister. He received a profound humanistic and theological education by his father, local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.
His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia.
As a physician of the early 16th century, Paracelsus held a natural affinity with the Hermetic, Neoplatonic, and Pythagorean philosophies central to the Renaissance, a world-view exemplified by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Nicolas Flamel in his Archidoxes of Magic. Astrology was a very important part of Paracelsus’ medicine, and he was a practicing astrologer — as were many of the university-trained physicians working at this time in Europe. Paracelsus devoted several sections in his writings to the construction of astrological talismans for curing disease, providing talismans for various maladies as well as talismans for each sign of the Zodiac. He also invented an alphabet called the Alphabet of the Magi, for engraving angelic names upon talismans.
Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He used the name “zink” for the element zinc in about 1526, based on the sharp pointed appearance of its crystals after smelting and the old German word “zinke” for pointed. He used experimentation in learning about the human body. It is said that Paracelsus was also responsible for the creation of laudanum, an opium tincture very common until the 19th century. As a physician and medical chemist at the time, he also sharply criticised apothecary practices that were often not applied in a dosage correct manner. From the study of his texts, he was an advocate and critic of the common use of guaiac wood and hellebore.
Paracelsus gained a reputation for being arrogant, and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. Some even claim he was a habitual drinker. He held the chair of medicine at the University of Basel and city physician for less than a year. He angered his colleagues by lecturing in German instead of Latin in order to make medical knowledge more accessible to the common people. He attacked conventional academic teachings and publicly burned medical textbooks, denouncing some of his predecessors as quacks and liars. After slandering his opponents with vicious epithets due to a dispute over a physician’s fee, he had to leave Basel secretly fearing punishment by the court. He became a tramp, wandering through Central Europe again. In 1530, at the instigation of the medical faculty at the University of Leipzig, the city council of Nürnberg prohibited the printing of Paracelsus’ works.
His travelings to Africa and Asia Minor in the pursuit of hidden knowledge are speculative. He revised old manuscripts and wrote new ones but had trouble finding publishers. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartznei (“The Great Surgery Book”) was published and enabled him to regain fame.
Paracelsus’ contributions to medicine can be seen in the context of the birth of Lutheranism, although he remained a Catholic and never officially assigned to the reformatory changes taking place during his time. He was a contemporary of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther. During his life he was compared with Luther partly because his ideas were different from the mainstream and partly because of openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine, such as his public burning of ancient books. This act struck people as similar to Luther’s defiance against the Church. Paracelsus rejected that comparison.Famously Paracelsus said, “I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.”
In 1526 he bought the rights of citizenship in Strasbourg to establish his own practice. But soon after he was called to Basel to the sickbed of Johann Froben or Frobenius, a successful printer and publisher. Based on historical accounts, Paracelsus cured Frobenius.
Paracelsus was one of the first medical professors to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. Furthermore, he allowed for the access of medical academic work to learned people. Surgeons for example often were not academically trained and ranked with the barbers and butchers in the same guild.
Paracelsus is also a folk legend, and bizarre tales about his life circulated Central Europe for centuries. In the minds of many, he became a wonder-healer and spiritual protector of health. His aid to villages during the plague in the 16th century was for many an act of heroism, his works and achievements therefore often abused and falsely copied.
While attending the sick bed of Frobenius (see above), Erasmus of Rotterdam witnessed the curative powers of Paracelsus’ therapy. Deeply impressed by his skills, he must have recommended him to his humanist friends at the University of Basel, one of the most progressive schools at that time. Paracelsus’ contact with Erasmus also initiated a letter dialogue between them.
He died at the age of 47 in Salzburg, and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St. Sebastian in Salzburg. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of that church.After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and his therapies became more widely known and used.His motto was “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” which means “Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself.”
Paracelsus largely rejected the philosophies of Aristotle and Galen, as well as the theory of humors. Although he did accept the concept of the four elements as water, air, fire, and earth, he saw them merely as a foundation for other properties on which to build. From his study of the elements, Paracelsus adopted the idea of triparite alternatives to explain the nature of medicine, taking the place of a combustable element (sulphur) a fluid and changeable element (mercury) and a solid, permanent element (salt.) The first mention of the mercury, sulphur, salt model was in the Opus paramirum dating to about 1530 Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases. He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He demonstrated his theory by burning a piece of wood. the fire was the work of sulphur, the smoke was mercury, and the residual ash was salt. Paracelsus also believed that mercury, sulphur, and salt provided a good explanation for the nature of medicine because each of these properties existed in many physical forms. With every disease, the symptoms depended on which of the three principal caused the ailment.Paracelsus theorized that materials that are poisonous in large doses may be positive in small doses, he demonstrated this with the examples of magnetism and static electricity, where a small magnet can attract much larger metals.
The tria prima also defined the human identity. Sulfur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); salt represented the body; mercury epitomised the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease.
Contributions to medicine
Sun Gold Heart
Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man (microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them.
As a result of this hermetical idea of harmony, the universe’s macrocosm was represented in every person as a microcosm. According to the insights at the time, there were Seven planets in the sky, Seven metals on Earth and Seven centers (or major organs) in Man — seven was a special number. Everything was heavenly and closely interrelated (see table below). Paracelsus mobilized the microcosm-macrocosm theory to demonstrate the analogy between the aspirations to salvation and health. As humans must ward off the influence of evil spirits with morality, they also must ward off diseases with good health.
Diseases were caused by poisons brought here from the stars. But ‘poisons’ were not necessarily something negative, in part because related substances interacted, in part because only the dose determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Evil could expel evil. Therefore, poisons could have beneficial medical effects. Because everything in the universe was interrelated, beneficial medical substances could be found in herbs, minerals and various chemical combinations thereof. Paracelsus viewed the universe as one coherent organism pervaded by a uniting lifegiving spirit, and this in its entirety, Man included, was ‘God’. His views put him at odds with the Church, for which there necessarily had to be a difference between the Creator and the created.
His work Die große Wundarzney is a forerunner of antisepsis. This specific empirical knowledge originated from his personal experiences as an army physician in the Venetian wars.
It is not historically proven that he was the first to apply Laudanum, an analgesic opium preparation. He first encountered this drug on an also speculative visit to Constantinople. If this speculation held true, he would have been the first doctor to apply an effective pharmacological agent against pain, especially in case of wounds caused by military confrontations at the time.
One of his most overlooked achievements was the systematic study of minerals and the curative powers of alpine mineral springs. His countless wanderings also brought him deep into many areas of the Alps, where such therapies were already practised on a less common scale than today.
He summarised his own views:
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.
Hippocrates put forward the theory that illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These ideas were further developed by Galen into an extremely influential and highly persistent set of medical beliefs that were to last until the mid-1850s. The dominant medical treatments in Paracelsus’ time were specific diets to help in the “cleansing of the putrefied juices” combined with purging and bloodletting to restore the balance of the four humors. Paracelsus supplemented and challenged this view with his beliefs that illness was the result of the body being attacked by outside agents. He objected to excessive bloodletting, saying that the process disturbed the harmony of the system, and that blood could not be purifed by lessening it’s quantity. During his time as a military surgeon, Paracelsus was exposed to the crudity of medical knowledge at the time, when doctors believed that infection was a natural part of the healing process. He advocated for cleanliness and protection of wounds, as well as the regulation of diet. Popular ideas of the time opposed these theories and suggested sewing or plastering wounds Historians of syphilitic disease credit Paracelsus with the recognition of the inherited character of syphilis. In his first medical publication, a short pamphlet of syphilis treatment, he wrote a clinical description of syphilis in which he maintained that it could be treated by carefully measured doses of mercury.
Paracelsus’ major work On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners documented the occupational hazards of metalworking including treatment and prevention strategies. He also wrote a book on the human body contradicting Galen’s ideas.
Contributions to toxicology
Paracelsus, sometimes called the father of toxicology, wrote:
Dosis facit venenum.
(deutsch: “Die Dosis macht das Gift.”) – or The dose makes the poison.
That is to say, substances considered toxic are harmless in small doses, and conversely an ordinarily harmless substance can be deadly if over-consumed.
Contributions to psychotherapy
Paracelsus is credited as providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: “Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.”
Carl Gustav Jung studied Paracelsus intensively. His work Mysterium Conjunctionis further drew from alchemical symbolism as a tool in psychotherapy. Following Paracelsus’ path, it was Jung who first theorized that the symbolic language of alchemy was an expression of innate but unconscious psychological processes.
Findings of Hydrogen
Paracelsus in the beginning of the sixteenth century had unknowingly observed hydrogen, because he noted that in reaction when acids attack metals, gas was a by-product. Later, Théodore de Mayerne repeated Paracelsus’s experiment in 1650 and found that the gas was flammable. However neither Paracelsus nor de Mayerne proposed that hydrogen could be a new element.
Legend and rumor
Many books mentioning Paracelsus also cite him as the origin of the word “bombastic” to describe his often arrogant speaking style, which the following passage illustrates:
I am Theophrastus, and greater than those to whom you liken me; I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum and I can prove to you what you cannot prove…I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine…As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?…Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.
—Paracelsus, Selected Writings
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word “bombastic” is “bombast”, an old term for cotton stuffing, rather than a play on Paracelsus’s middle name, Bombastus.