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Paracelsus

Written and compiled by George Knowles

Paracelsus is the pseudonym of Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss-German physician, alchemist, astrologer and occultist, who developed his own system of medicine and philosophy.  He believed in natural magic and that a man’s body and soul must be treated together in curing an illness.  He was not a well-liked person however, being hot tempered, quarrelsome and abrasive, and by all counts a thoroughly disagreeable man.  He treated fellow physicians with superior arrogance and scathingly questioned the medical theories and beliefs of his time, asserting that agents external to the body caused diseases and that chemical substances could counter them.  Of himself he wrote:

By nature I am not subtly spun, nor is it the custom of my native land to accomplish anything by spinning silk.  Nor are we raised on figs, nor on mead, nor on wheaten bread, but on cheese, milk and oatcakes, which cannot give one a subtle disposition.  Moreover, a man clings all his days to what he received in his youth; and my youth was coarse as compared to that of the subtle, pampered, and over-refined.  For those who are raised in soft clothes and in women’s apartments and we who are brought up among the pine-cones have trouble in understanding one another well

(Paracelsus: Selected Writings, ed. by Jolande Jacobi, 1951)

 

Born near Einsiedeln in the Canton of Schwyz (now in Switzerland) on the 10th November 1493, Theophrastus came from an aristocratic family in decline.  His grandfather had once commanded a company of the fearsome Teutonic Knights campaigning in the Holy Lands, but his temper led him to quarrel with important people and as a result he lost the family ancestral home Hohenheim Castle together with its estates.  His father Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim was an illegitimate Swabian, a physician who had studied at Tübingen in Germany, before continuing to study metallurgy, alchemy and medicine all around Europe.

 

After years of wandering his father finally settled in the village of Einsiedeln by the river Siehl in Switzerland.  In the village there was a Benedictine Abbey and a shrine called the Black Lady, where he took a position as a physician, doctoring to the local people and pilgrims visiting the shrine.  Eventually he married Elsa, a bonded servant of the Abbey and a year later in 1493 she bore their only child.  His father’s ambitions for his son are echoed in the name he gave him:  “Theophrastus”, a pupil of Aristotle, was a great philosopher and renowned botanist, “Philippus” was an emperor of Rome (244-249), “Aureolus” was a famous alchemist, and of course Bombastus von Hohenheim was their family name.

 

The family lived in a small cottage outside of the village, near a pine filled forest by the Siehl River, where Theophrastus grew up in quiet seclusion surrounded by nature.  His father introduced him to medicine and taught him the healing properties of herbs found in the region.  He also taught him something of alchemy and the science of mineralogy.  From the Benedictine monks at the Abbey, he was taught to read and write Latin.  In 1502 at the age of nine, his mother who had a history of depression jumped off a bridge into the Siehl River and died.  Following her death his father left Einsiedeln and took up a new position as a physician at Villach in Carinthia, a small town in southern Austria were he died on the 08th September 1534.

 

In 1509 at the age of sixteen, Theophrastus entered Basle University in Switzerland studying Chemistry and Medicine.  Among his early teachers were the Bishop of Lavant and the Bishop of Freising.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1510, but somewhat disappointed with the medical training he had received, Theophrastus changed his name to Paracelsus, a Latin name meaning “greater than Celus”, named after Aulus Cornelius Celus who was one of the great encyclopaedists of the first century AD.  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 arrogantly announced that his own medicine would prove greater than that of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

 

Paracelsus first started work as an analyst in the mines of Tirol, where he learned about mining diseases and experimented with mineralogy in the laboratories of Sigmund Fugger, a wealthy physician of Basle, situated in Schwaz in the Tyrol province of western Austria.  He also studied the art of alchemy with the renowned Hermetic philosopher Joannes Trithemius, abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at Sponheim near Bad Kreuznach.

In 1516 while still pursuing his studies, Paracelsus was forced to leave Basle after trouble with the authorities over alleged practices of necromancy.  Eager to travel and learn new things, Paracelsus spent the next 10 years wondering across Europe, Russia and the Middle East learning and practicing medicine, he also received training on the Hermetic secrets (the mystical alchemical writings and teachings of the Hermetica (2nd-3rd centuries AD) attributed to legendary Hermes Trismegistus) from Arabian adepts Constantinople.

 

While working as a military surgeon with the Habsburg armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles I, Paracelsus gained considerable practical experience in medicine and surgery, and particularly in the use of chemistry and alchemy in his efforts to control the infections responsible for so many amputations and deaths.  His solution came from a combination of observation, experimentation and magic, and by putting his faith in the power of nature’s own healing.

 

Contrary to the methods used by other field surgeons, Paracelsus believed that many wounds would heal better if cleaned, drained and prevented from becoming infected, more so than when using the traditional method of pouring boiling oil onto wounds to cauterise them, which often proved more damaging than the sword or spear that caused the wound in the first place.  Paracelsus tried it and found it to be true, wounds did healed better when not treated with traditional methods, “If you prevent infection, the body will heal the wound all by itself” he wrote later.

 

Continuing his travels and while visiting northern Italy, he is believed to have earned a doctorate from the University of Ferrara.  In 1526, he was back in Germany, where in Strasburg he joined the Guild of Surgeons.  As a doctor he practiced his belief to treat all people justly and attended to everyone, rich or poor, charging only what he thought they could afford, those who could not pay he treated regardless.  To the poor he was a compassionate man and many of the cures he prescribed seemed miraculous, earning him a reputation as a great healer.

 

Paracelsus was forever experimenting with chemistry and alchemy, and was the first to use the metallic element Zinc in medicine as an antiseptic ointment.  Many of his cures came from plant extracts, as well as mineral compounds such as arsenic and mercury.  His use of essences and tinctures extracted from natural plants, replaced many of the complicated compound medicines in use during his day.  His opponents however, often complained that his remedies were poisonous, to which he would reply:  All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous”.

 

Due to the success of his treatments, many thought Paracelsus a magician, but while he believed in the magic of nature, he was sceptical of the magic performed in rituals by magicians and would be sorcerers.  He did however believe in the power of local wise men and women (witches), who most often produced more effective remedies than did the learned University trained physicians of the day.  Paracelsus gained quite a wide reputation when his concocted natural remedies worked better than the conventional treatments being used by other physicians, much to their chagrin and consternation.

 

In 1526, thanks to the influence of the humanist theologians Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Joannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531) Paracelsus was appointed to the office of City Physician and Professor of Medicine in the University of Basle.  However as was his way he soon upset the local authorities and faculty leaders.  His teachings opposed the prevailing Galen system of medicine, and on one occasion he burned a copy of Avicenna’s classic “Canon Medicinae” in a public square, he also insisted on presenting his lectures in German instead of Latin, which was contrary to all academic customs in those times.

 

While many of the students accepted his revolutionary ideas for change, one student in particular tried to ridicule him and posted a derogative poem about him on doors around the university campus.  Paracelsus was not amused and hotly demanded that the authorities find and punish the student.  However, his persistent outspoken attacks on the medical establishment, and to a certain extent his own success and popularity as a doctor, had garnered the animosity and jealousy of all those in authority, who flatly refused to help him.

 

Paracelsus also suffered a blow to his reputation as a doctor and great healer, when a prominent patient the noted humanist publisher Johann Froben, suffering from an infection in his right leg, died despite all his efforts.  As a result of this he was ostracised by the medical establishment.  When later he quarreled with a magistrate during a court settlement case, he had sued a prominent churchman for none payment of his medical fee, the court ruled that his fee had been too high and that he Paracelsus should be imprisoned, thus prompting his hurried departure from Basle.

 

After leaving Basle, Paracelsus moved to Colmar a town in northeast France, the first of many moves throughout the last decade of his life.  As he wandered around Europe he continued to practice medicine and doctor the sick alone the way, but never stayed long in any one place.  Penniless most of the time, his nomadic travels led him through many of Europe’s leading centers of learning, were he began revising old manuscripts and writing new ones.  Among his own works are:  Vom Holz Guaico (1529), Vonn dem Bad Pfeffers in Oberschwytz gelegen (1535), Prognostications (1536).  His best known work Die grosse Wundartzney (The Great Surgery Book) also published in 1536, went some way to repairing his damaged reputation.

 

In 1541 Prince Palatine, the Arch-Bishop Duke Ernst of Bavaria, a great lover of the secret art of alchemy, invited Paracelsus to visit him in Salzburg, where soon after he died from natural causes on the 23rd of September 1541.  Some believe he was poisoned or killed by assassins hired by the disgruntled medical establishment fearing he was about to make a come back to popularity, but this has never been proven.  As he requested in his last will and testament, a requiem Mass was perform at his funeral and he was buried in the cemetery of St. Sebastian.

 

Paracelsus, while ostracised for most of his life (much of it by his own doing) was a man before his time, a genius that society could little understand.  His legacy was his encouragement to research, observe and experiment, which revolutionized many archaic medical methods.  He was among the first to write scientific books for the public, and a complete edition of his works appeared “in Latin” in 1589.  During his own time he identified the characteristics of numerous diseases such as silicosis, goitre and syphilis, and used ingredients such as opium, sulphur and mercury compounds to counter them.  He is also credited with successfully treating gout, leprosy and ulcers with mercury.

 

Through experimentation Paracelsus sought to improve pharmacy and therapeutic methods, and developed techniques for the first production of laudanum.  Many of his remedies were based on the alchemical belief that “like cures like”, an early form of homoeopathy.  Although his writings contained elements of alchemy and magic, his methods freed-up the medical thinking of his time and enabled it to take on a more scientific course.  In his own words Paracelsus wrote:  Many have said of alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver.  For me such was not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines”.

 

His motto throughout his life was:  “alterius non sit qui suus esse potest”, which means:  “let no man belong to another that can belong to himself”.

 

Sources:

 

The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft  - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved

http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/p/paracelsus.html

http://www.alchemylab.com/paracelsus.htm

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11468a.htm

Written and compiled on the 07th December 2007  ©  George Knowles

 

 

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