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[Paracelsus, Five Hundred Years: Three American Exhibits]


A 500th Anniversary Celebration

Allen G. Debus
Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Medicine
The University of Chicago

Paracelsus (1493-1541), more properly Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus
Bombastus von Hohenheim, was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland in 1493, one
year after Columbus' first voyage to the New World. He was a contemporary of
Nicholas Copernicus, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci and a host of other
figures we associate with the shattering of medieval thought and the birth
of the modern world.

In fact, Paracelsus played a part in this change no less than the others.
During his lifetime he was called by some the "Luther of Medicine" and the
scientific debates of the late sixteenth century were centered more
frequently on the innovations of Paracelsus than they were on the
heliocentric astronomy of Copernicus.

Renaissance Humanism

How may we characterize the intellectual world in which Paracelsus lived?
Surely a major factor was Renaissance humanism -- the fascination with
antiquity in all of its aspects. Authors sought to write a stylistically
pure Latin to replace the barbarous Latin of the Middle Ages. They travelled
in search of old manuscripts that might have survived in isolated
monasteries ... and they studied Greek so that they might translate these
treasures of the ancient world. This search for the work of ancient authors
was felt first in literature, rhetoric and history, but by the late
fifteenth century there was an increasing interest in the sciences and
medicine. Astronomers and mathematicians sought an accurate text of
Ptolemy's Almagest and both the observations and the mathematics of this
text were to form the foundation for Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium
(1543). In medicine Galen, Hipprocates, and Dioscorides were newly
translated from Greek. The recovery of the medical writings of Celsus was
highly influential because they presented medical terminology in the elegant
Latin of the first century A.D. Indeed, for many humanists the discovery of
new texts seemed as exciting as the discovery of the new lands being made by
contemporary explorers. The result was a new reliance on the truths of
antiquity and establishment medicine became increasingly dependent upon the
writings of Galen, the "Prince of Physicians." In short, with the corrected
translations of ancient authors -- and more important, the discovery of new
manuscripts lost to scholars for a thousand years -- it was thought possible
to restore the real truths of both Aristotelian natural philosophy and
Galenic medicine.


Numerous Renaissance physicians favored the teachings of Hippocrates over
those of Galen. From Justi Cortnummii, Di morbo attonito liber unus ad
Hippocraticam...(Lipsiae, 1677)
However, the recovery of ancient classics and their translation was not
limited to the works of Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, and Dioscorides. In
addition to the works of many lesser figures there were new areas of study
made available to Renaissance scholars. Important among them was the
recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum, a group of treatises supposedly written
in Egypt by Hermes Trismegistus at about the time of Abraham although they
had not been composed until late antiquity. Authors of these treatises felt
that a magus, a true natural magician, would be able to understand man, the
microcosm, through his study of the macrocosm since the former was a perfect
representation of the latter. Some physicians were to find this a new key to
their work. No less appealing was the fact that this call for new
observations in nature could be seen as an act of devotion. Christians
should study not only Holy Scripture, but also the book of nature, clearly a
second book of divine revelation.

Hermes was known not only to the Church Fathers, but also as one of the
great figures of alchemy. Even today we speak of a hermetic seal in
chemistry. Traditional alchemy did include a belief in the transmutation of
the base metals to gold, but more important was the separation by chemical
means of the pure essence of a substance from its impurities. Through such
processes (frequently through distillation) the true divine signatures
impressed on earthly things by the Creator for their proper use (and then
lost at the time of the Fall) might be rediscovered. In this fashion we
would learn more of our Creator while recovering His gifts through our
labor. Surely we could expect to find substances of medicinal value in this

In short, by 1500 the impact of the newly recovered texts was leading in two
directions. On the one hand the natural philosophers and physicians of the
schools had developed an increased respect for Aristotle, Galen and other
ancient authorities. On the other hand, the recovery of the Corpus
Hermeticum and other more mystical texts placed an emphasis on natural
magic, the relationship of man to the macrocosm, and sought divine truths in
the study of nature. The first path led to truth through traditional
medicine and a reliance on mathematics and the physics of motion for our
understanding of nature: the second led to a more mystical and religious
basis of knowledge and turned to chemistry as a key to man and nature alike.


While still a youth Paracelsus became aware of many of the conflicting
currents of his age. His father was a physician in Einsiedeln and he
practiced in a number of mining towns. The boy surely learned some practical
medicine at home through observing his father. It is likely that he learned
some folk medicine as well. He also picked up some alchemy from his father
who had an interest in the subject. And in mining towns he would have
observed metallurgical practices as well as the diseases that afflicted the
men who worked the mines. Traditionally it has been said that Paracelsus was
taught by several bishops and the occultist abbot of Sponheim, Johannes
Trithemius. At the age of fourteen the boy left home to begin a long period
of wandering. He apparently visited a number of universities, but there is
no proof that he ever took a medical degree. As an adult, however, he picked
up practical medical knowledge by working as a surgeon in a number of the
mercenary armies that ravaged Europe in the seemingly endless wars of the
period. He wrote that he visited most of the countries of Central, Northern,
and Eastern Europe.


Camp scene showing Renaissance period troops. From Paracelsus, Grosse
Wundarznei, Erster Theil (Franckfurt am Main, 1565)
It is only in the final fifteen years of his life that the records of his
travels become clearer. In 1527 he was called to Basel to treat a leg
ailment of the famed publisher of humanist classics, Johannes Frobenius. In
Basel Paracelsus also gave medical advice to the Dutch scholar Erasmus and
came in contact with some of the more prominent scholars of the religious
Reformation. He was appointed city physician and professor of medicine. But
although he was permitted to lecture at the University of Basel, he had no
official appointment with the medical faculty there.

Almost immediately Paracelsus became a figure of contention. He heaped scorn
on the conservative physicians of the University, and, at the St. John's Day
bonfire, threw Avicenna's revered Canon of medicine to the blaze. Then, his
patient, Frobenius, died. This was followed by a disastrous lawsuit and he
left Basel in haste, even leaving behind his manuscripts.

The final years of his life find Paracelsus moving from town to town, and
again, he often left his manuscripts behind as he had in Basel. He comes
across as an angry man who antagonized many of those he met -- even those
who tried to help him. In the end he was called to Salzburg to treat the
suffragan bishop, Ernest of Wittelsbach. There he died at the early age of


U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Last updated: 27 April 1998