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Medicine
(Part 21)



Paracelsus and Chemical Medicine

Contemporary with the school of medical humanists, but little influenced by them, lived in Germany a man of strange genius, of whose character and importance the most opposite opinions have been expressed. The first noticeable quality in Paracelsus (c. 1490-1541) is his revolutionary independence of thought, which was supported by his immense personal arrogance. Himself well trained in the learning and medical science of the day, he despised and trampled upon all traditional and authoritative teachings. He began his lectures at Basel by burning the books of Avicenna and others; he afterwards boasted of having read no books for ten years; he protested that his shoe buckles were more learned than Galen and Avicenna. On the other hand, he spoke with respect of Hippocrates, and wrote a commentary on his Aphorisms. In this we see a spirit very different from the enthusiasm of the humanists for a purer and nobler philosophy than the scholastic and Arabian versions of Greek thought. There is no record of Paracelsus’s knowledge of Greek, and as, at least in his student days, the most important works of Greek medicine were very imperfectly known, it is probable he had little first-hand acquaintance with Galen or Hippocrates, while his breach with the humanists is the more conspicuous from his lecturing and writing chiefly in his native German.

Having thus made a clean sweep of nearly the whole of the dogmatic medicine, what did Paracelsus put in its place? Certainly not pure empiricism, or habits of objective observation. He had a dogma of his own, -- one founded, according to his German expositors, on the views of the Neo-Platonists, of which a few disjoined specimens must here suffice. The human body was a "microcosm" which corresponded to the "macrocosm," and contained in itself all parts of visible nature, -- sun, moon, stars, and the poles of heaven. To know the nature of man and how to deal with it, the physician should study, not anatomy, which Paracelsus utterly rejected, but all parts of external nature. Life was a perpetual germinative process controlled by the indwelling spirit or Archeus; and diseases, according to the mystical conception of Paracelsus, were not natural, but spiritual. Nature was sufficient for the cure of most diseases; art had only to interfere when the internal physician, the man himself, was tired or incapable. Then some remedy had to be introduced which should be antagonistic, not to the disease in a physical sense, but to the spiritual seed of the disease. These remedies were arcane, -- a word corresponding partly to what we now call specific remedies, but implying a mysterious connexion between the remedy and the "essence" of the disease. Areana were often shown to be such by their physical properties, not only by such as heat, cold, &c., but by fortuitous resemblances to certain parts of the body; thus arose the famous doctrine of "signatures," or signs indicating the virtues and uses of natural objects, which was afterwards developed into great complexity. Great importance was also attached to chemically prepared remedies as containing the essence or spiritual quality of the material from which they were derived. The actual therapeutical resources of Paracelsus included a large number of metallic preparations, in the introduction of some of which he did good service, and, among vegetable preparations, the tincture of opium, still known by the name he gave it, laudanum. In this doubtless he derived much advantage form his knowledge of chemistry, though the science was as yet not disentangled from the secret traditions of alchemy, and was often mixed up with imposture.






Portrait Presumed to be of Paracelsus (1493-1541) by Quentin Metsys


German historians of medicine attach great importance to the revolt of Paracelsus against the prevailing systems, and trace in his writings anticipations of many scientific truths of later times. That his personality was influential, and his intrepid originality of great value as an example in his own country, is undeniable. As a national reformer he has been not inaptly compared to Luther. But his importance in the universal history of medicine we cannot estimate so highly. The chief immediate result we can trance is the introduction of certain mineral remedies, especially antimony, the use of which become a kind of badge of the disciples of Paracelsus. The use of these remedies was not, however, necessarily connected with a belief in his system, which seems to have spread little beyond his own country. Of the followers of Paracelsus some became mere mystical quacks and impostors. Others, of more learning and better repute, were distinguished from the regular physicians chiefly by their use of chemical remedies. In France the introduction of antimony gave rise to a bitter controversy which lasted into the 17th century, and led to the expulsion of some men of mark from the Paris faculty. In England "chemical medicine" is first heard of in the reign of Elizabeth, and was in like manner contemned and assailed by the College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. But it should be remembered that all the chemical physicians did not call Paracelsus master. The most notorious of that school in England, a certain Anthony, never quotes Paracelsus, but relies upon Arnold de Villanova and Raymund Lully. From this time, however, it is always possible to trace a school of chemical practitioners, who, though condemned by the orthodox Galenists, held their ground, till in the 17th century a successor of Paracelsus arose in the celebrated Van Helmont.


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