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PARACELSUS (1493-1541)





Paracelsus, from an unknown engraving dated

1666 (Mansell Collection)



Paracelsus was probably one of the most colourful characters of the Renaissance period. He opposed the influence of Galen who had attempted to apply Aristotle's physical theories to medicine. He challenged traditionally held scientific and medical beliefs and criticised the alchemists, whom he saw as spending their time trying to turn base metal into gold. His original ideas, made chemistry more suitable to understand the mysteries of nature.



Paracelsus was born in 1493 at Einsiedeln near Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a physician - Wilhelm Bombast de Riett (the illegitimate member of the old and noble Bombast family of Swabia). Paracelsus was christened Aureolus Philippus Theoprastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Not surprisingly, he changed his name later in his life to something considerably more compact - Paracelsus. The choice of the name Paracelsus being primarily to publicise the contempt he felt for Celsus and other authors, whose medical texts were still the only source of information in the Middle Ages although they had been dead for thousands of years. The works of these ancient authors were thought to refer to a golden age in science, arts and medicine and was not to be challenged.

When young Paracelsus was educated firstly by his father and then by a number of bishops including Johannes Tritheminus, the Abbot of Sponheim, who was also in touch with Agrippa von Nettesheim.

He is reputed to have studied at the University of Vienna between 1509 and 1511 and assumed to have been awarded a degree, but there is no record of this. Between 1513 and 1516 Paracelsus travelled and studied in Italy, where it is possible he may have taken a lower degree, but again there is no evidence to support this.

In 1522 Paracelsus was employed as a military surgeon in the Venetian service and travelled considerably during this time. In 1526 he settled in Strasbourg where he developed a successful practice until 1527 when he moved to Basel as town physician with the right to lecture at the university. However, he was compelled to leave in 1528 after the death of his patron and spent the remainder of his life travelling throughout southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Bohemia, perhaps earning his living as a healer and writer.

He died at Salzburg on the 24 September 1541 aged 48.



Paracelsus held original and often controversial views (sometimes contradictory) about the causes of illness. The Scholastics believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of the four bodily humours - blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Popular medical practice was to remove excesses of the liquid considered to be the cause of the ill health, by bloodletting and purging. Paracelsus's view of disease was that it was caused by external agents attacking the body and he devised specific chemical remedies which he believed could supplement or take over from the prescription of herbs.

The characteristics of many diseases, such as goitre and syphilis were also identified by Paracelsus and were treated with sulphur and mercury compounds. The school of thought at the time was to treat syphilis with a substance called guaiac. Paracelsus derided this, saying that the only gain was in the coffers of the Fuggers, a company who held the import monopoly on the drug.

Many of his remedies were based on the belief that "like cures like" and in this he was practising what today would be regarded as homeopathy. Paracelsus further broke with established tradition in his belief that the treatment of a patient depended on the diagnosis, (the established view of the physician, was as a learned academic who read from an old book, while his unfortunate patient was in the hands of an assistant who simply did as he was told). Paracelsus wrote, " There can be no surgeon who is not a physician, where the physician is not also a surgeon he is an idol that is nothing but a painted monkey". As can be imagined, such statements did not endear him to many of his colleagues and rivals, but did attract him to other free thinkers of the Reformation.

In 1527,the publisher Johann Frobenius, a prominent Protestant and humanist was about to have his leg amputated due to severe infection. In desperation, Frobenius appealed for help to friends in the Reformation movement. They asked Paracelsus who was visiting Basel at the time to visit Frobenius. When Paracelsus arrived he immediately dismissed the academics from the room and applied treatment himself, which cured the infection without the need for amputation. This act brought the grateful thanks from the Amerbach brothers a powerful family in the Reformation movement and from Erasmus for whom the Frobenius family had printed books spreading the word about the movement.

A great change was blowing through Europe, a change which would be known as the Scientific Revolution.