Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a true alchemist at heart because throughout his life he believed in natural healing of a magical world created by God. At birth his father named him Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Following some years of seeking medical knowledge and being disappointed he gave himself the Latin name of Paracelsus, meaning “greater than Celus.” This was after Aulus Cornelius Celus who was one of the great encyclopedists of the first century CE. His medical compendium De re mediea was one of the first ancient works on medicine to appear in print, as early as 1478. After assuming his new name Paracelsus bravely announced that his medicine was greater than that of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Coming from humble beginnings, an aristocratic family in decline, he made early medical history as well as many enemies. Paracelsus inherited his bad temper from his paternal grandfather who had commanded the feared Teutonic Knights and campaigned in the Holy Lands. His hotheadedness got him in quarrels with the wrong people and eventually he lost the Hohenheim Castle and its estates. Paracelsus’ father was illegitimate. He studied metallurgy, alchemy, and medicine, but never acquired his doctor’s credentials. After leading a vagabond life he settled in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, in the pine forest by the Siehl River. The village was dominated by both nature and God, containing a brooding Benedictine abbey and a riverside shrine of the Black Lady. There the father doctored the local people and pilgrims going to the shrine. Eventually he married, Elsa, a bond servant of the abbey. A year later in 1493, she bore their only child. The father’s grandiose ambitions echoed in his son’s name: Aureolus was a famous alchemist; and Theophrastus was Aristotle’s successor who provided a systematic classification of plants and minerals in his book: De lapida (On Stones). Bombastus was a family name.
Later in life Paracelsus fondly wrote of his father saying he had introduced him to medicine by telling him about the healing herbs and minerals of the region. He also taught him some alchemy, the mysteries of mining, smelting, and refining ores. He rarely spoke of his mother except he grew up in poverty and his home was quiet. It has been inferred that his mother was manic-depressive which probably caused Paracelsus to write about mental illnesses with a sensitivity most uncharacteristic of his time. When the boy was nine it is alleged that his mother jumped from the Devil’s Bridge into the Siehl River. Following her death his father departed Einsiedeln.
Paracelsus acquired more training in alchemy and Latin at a Benedictine cloister where his father found work. From there he accumulated his education nomadically as he entered and left several schools and universities. It included Plato’s utopian and idealistic ideas, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology. He studied under some of Germany’s leading humanists who when arguing against the ignorance and bigotry of their day shockingly taught that all man are brothers even Greeks, Turks, and Jews; it is no wonder the Erfurt campus library was set afire.
When in Italy he made enemies by speaking out against Galenic* medicine which had been the bulwark of Europe’s medical practice since ancient Greece. He declared those practicing it did more harm than good. Many think his arrogance kept him from learning what would become Italy’s great gift to medicine, the systematic study of human anatomy. But he did learn of the new “French disease,” syphilis of which he would later write about and cure with mercury.
There is speculation he gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara while others say there is no evidence of it and he practiced medicine like his father without any credential. His surgical training came while with the Hapsburg armies. He was appalled at the rampant raging infection which resulted in so many amputations and deaths. His solution came from alchemical study: combined observation, experimentation, and magic. He put more faith in nature’s healing than that of his fellow doctors. According to soldier’s lore a wound healed better when you applied the dressing to the sword or spear that caused the wound than to the wound itself. Paracelsus decided to try it, and saw that it was true–wounds healed better when not treated with traditional ointments. “If you prevent infection,” he concluded, “Nature will heal the wound all by herself.”
He practiced his belief that doctors should justly treat all people; therefore, he attended to everyone, rich or poor, charging what he thought they could afford, those who could not pay he treated anyway. To the poor he was compassionate. Many of his cures which he frequently performed seemed miraculous to the people and he earned the reputation of a healer. But, equally as often he angered the local authorities and found it advisable to move on.
At thirty-three he found himself in a teaching position at Basel University in Switzerland. His less than eight month stay open with his pamphlet attacking Galenic* medicine. He had not tried amicable meeting the faculty before issuing this attack. He called the theory useless claiming doctors could not possibly make accurate diagnoses using it. Immediately the faculty was outraged and banned Paracelsus from lecturing. Not ready to back away from his stand, Paracelsus said he never asked for academic approval and demanded that he be allowed to lecture in the city of Basel. With this he won a temporary victory. He lectured on a radical medical treatment including pathology, prescribing and preparing medicine, examining the pulse and urine, and treating illnesses and injuries. To further make his point, Paracelsus did not lecture in Latin, as was customary for academics of that time, but in German so everyone would understand; if people did not know what their doctors were doing, they surely did after hearing Paracelsus.
Needless to say this further upset the faculty and city authorities. But there were several other incidents too. At the students’ celebration of St. John’s Day in mid-summer, Paracelsus threw the book of classical medicine, Canon of Avicenna, onto the bonfire. Many accepted Paracelsus’ ideas, but a student ridiculed him by posting a poem about him on doors. Paracelsus would not permit this to pass unnoticed; he demanded that the city council find and punish the student. But the council had not intention of getting involved; especially after his first patient and host, a humanist publisher Johannes Froben, with the chronic infection in his right leg had died. This factor also went against in gaining a settlement in court over a medical fee he had charge a churchman. The court ruled that his fee was too high and Paracelsus should be imprisoned. This was not the first time he fled town in the middle of the night.
Afterwards Paracelsus returned to his nomadic life while practicing medicine, doctoring the sick alone the way. After leaving Basel it was a wonder he could practice medicine, but he did. At most Paracelsus was a paradox; his lifestyle was that of a fraudulent alchemist while he had the spirit of a real one. . Paracelsus uniquely took the medieval world toward the modern world without feeling any clear-cut division. He retained his old beliefs in a God, angles, devils, and all kinds of natural spirits which he proclaimed could and should be used for healing. Many thought him to be a magician since some of his cures seemed miraculous. Paracelsus would never had considered himself a magician; he just knew the healing power of Nature as he firmly believed that God had placed it there, and this belief was reaffirmed whenever he saw the natural healing power work. He knew the relationship between God, Nature, and man, the mark of a true alchemist.
This is why he never abandoned the alchemical process–solution, evaporation, precipitation, and distillation–because he knew that it worked. “Stop making gold,” he taught, “instead find medicines.”
He was the first to name the element zinc in 1526. His medicinal ingredients came from plant extracts, and mineral compounds he used were antinomy, arsenic, and mercury. He recognized the benefits of mineral waters for health, especially the Pfaffer water; particularly the tincture of gallnut as a reagent for the iron properties of mineral water. His essences and tinctures extracted from natural plants replaced the complicated compound medicines of the day. Many of his opponents complained his remedies were poisonous, to which he quipped, “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities…it is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”
Coinciding with Paracelsus’ alchemical views was his belief that the health of the body relied on the harmony of man, the microcosm, with Nature, the macrocosm. He did not hold this belief simply for soul purification, like others before him and some of his contemporaries, but because he saw many similarities between the microcosm and macrocosm and knew man’s health depended upon the relationship of the two.
Centuries later it was noted that the psychiatrist Carl G. Jung respected the Renaissance alchemist. “Jung respected the conservatism and radicalism in Paracelsus, who was conservative about Christianity, alchemy, and astrology, but skeptical and rebellious. ‘What immediately strikes us on reading his work is his bilious and quarrelsome temperament. He raged against academic physicians all along the line.’ Believing in cosmic correlations, he thought the stars in the human body copied the stars in the sky. ‘The physician should proceed from external things, not from man.’ He should be both an astrologer and an alchemist. How could he know what caused ulceration if he did not know what made iron go rusty? But above all, Paracelsus believed in magic, intuition, and empathy. ‘Thus the physician must be endowed with no less compassion and love than God extends toward man.'”
Surely there were lonely times in Paracelsus’ life but he never compromised his ideas. He continued doctoring the sick after leaving Basel, this was his priority. Also he revised old manuscripts and wrote his Die grosse Wundartzney (The Great Surgery Book). He lived by his motto: alterius non sit qui suus esse potest, “let no man belong to another that can belong to himself.”
Paracelsus was buried in St. Sebastian’s cemetery, Salzburg. His present tomb in the porch of St. Sebastian Church was unanimously donated. In his will were directions for a requiem Mass indicating he still considered himself a member of the Church.
* Galen (129-200) was a Greek physician whose medicine dominated Europe until the Renaissance. Primarily his theory was based on the four bodily humors of Hippocrates: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These corresponded with the seasons and elements of the earth. He strictly followed Greek philosophy, ignoring Celsus’ writings and accepting those of Asclepiades.
Adler, Robert E. “Paracelsus: Renaisannce Rebel” Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome. Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons, 2004. pp. 46-52.
Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2006. pp. 302-307.
Hayman, Ronald. A Life of Jung. New York. W. W. Norton. 1999. pp. 375-376.
Theophrastus Paracelsus. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11468a.htm>.