1902 Encyclopedia > Paracelsus

(also known as: Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim)
Swiss physician and alchemist
(c. 1493-1541)

PARACELSUS (c. 1490-1541). It seems now to be established that Paracelsus was born near Einsiedeln, in the canton Schwyz, in 1490 or 1491 according to some, or 1493 according to others. His father, the natural son of a grandmaster of the Teutonic order, was Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, who had a hard struggle to make a substance as a physician. His mother was superindendent of the hospital at Einsiedeln, a post she relinquished upon her marriage. Paracelsus’s name was Theophrastus Bonbast von Hohenheim; for the names Philippus and Aureolus good authority is wanting, and the epithet Paracelsus, like some similar compounds, was probably one of his own making, and was meant to denote his superiority to Celsus. In 1502-3 his father, taking his family with him, removed to Villach in Carinthia; and he resided there in the practice of the medical art till his death in 1534. In one of his works, dedicated to the magistracy of the town, Paracelsus refers to the esteem in which his father was held, and expresses his own gratitude for it.

Paracelsus image

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

Of the early years of Paracelsus’s life there is hardly anything known. His father was his first teacher, and tool pains to instruct him in all the learning of the time, especially in medicine. Doubtless Paracelsus learned rapidly what was put before him, but he seems at a comparatively early age to have questioned the value of what he was expected to acquire, and to have soon struck out ways for himself. As he grew older he was taken in hand by several distinguished churchmen, although it has been objected that dates will not warrant the idea of actual personal instruction. This, however, is not correct, for all the men Paracelsus mentions were alive in his lifetime., though he was so young that he could hardly have profited by their lessons, unless on the supposition that he was a quick and precocious boy, which it is very likely he was. At the age of sixteen he entered the university of Basel., but probably soon abandoned the studies therein pursued. He next went to Trithemius, the bishop of Sponheim and Würzburg, under whom he prosecuted chemical researches. Trithemius is the reputed author of some obscure tracts on the great elixir, and as there was no other chemistry going Paracelsus would have no devote himself to the reiterated operations so characteristic of the notions of that time. But the confection of the stone of the philosophers was too remote a possibility to gratify the fiery spirit of a youth like Paracelsus, eager to make what he knew, or could learn, at once available for practical medicine. So he left school chemistry as he had forsaken university culture, and started for the mines in Tyrol owned by the wealthy family of the Fuggers. The sort of knowledge he got there pleased him much more. There at least he was in contact with reality. The struggle with nature before the precious metals could be made of use impressed upon observation. He saw all the mechanical difficulties that had to be overcome in mining; he learned the nature and succession of rocks, the physical properties of minerals, ores, and metals; he got a notion of mineral waters; he was an eyewitness of the accidents which befell the miners, and studied the diseases which attached them; he had proof hat positive knowledge of nature was not to be got in schools and universities, but only by going to Nature herself, and to those who were constantly engaged with her. Hence came Paracelsus’s peculiar mode of study. He attached no value to mere scholarship; scholastic disputations he utterly ignored and despised,—and especially the discussions on medical topics, which turned more upon theories and definitions than upon actual practice. He therefore went wandering over a great part of Europe to learn all that he could. In so doing he was one of the first physicians of modern times to profit by a mode of study which is now reckoned indispensable. In the 16th century the difficulty of moving about was much greater than it is now; still Paracelsus faced it, and on principle. The book of nature, he affirmed, is that which the physician must read, and to do so he must walk over the leaves. The humours and passions and diseases of different nations are different and the physician must go among the nations if he well be master of his art; the more he knows of other nations, the better he will understand his own. For the physician it is ten times more necessary and useful to know the powers of the heavens and the earth, the virtues of plants and minerals, than to spend his time on Greek and Latin grammar. And the commentary of his own and succeeding centuries upon these very extreme views is that Paracelsus was no scholar, but an ignorant vagabond. He himself, however, valued his method and his knowledge very differently, and argued that he knew what his predecessors were ignorant of, because he had been taught in no human school. "Whence have I all my secrets, out of what writers and authors? Ask rather how the beasts have learned their arts. If nature can instruct irrational animals, can it not much more men?" In this new school discovered by Paracelsus, and since attended with the happiest results by many others, he remained for about ten years. He had-acquired great stores of facts, which it was impossible for him to have reduced to order, but which gave him an unquestionable superiority to his contemporaries. So in 1526 or 1527, on his return to Basel, he was appointed town physician, and shortly afterwards he gave a course of lectures on medicine in the university. Unfortunately for him, the lectures broke away from tradition. They were in German, not in Latin; they were expositions of his own experience, of his own views, of his own methods of curing, adapted to the diseases that afflicted the Germans in the year 1527, and they were not commentaries on the text of Galen or Avicenna. Unfortunately they attacked, not only these great authorities, but the German graduates who followed them and disputed about them in 1527. They criticized in no measured terms the current medicine of the time, and exposed the practical ignorance, the pomposity, and the greed of those who practiced it.

The truth of Paracelsus’s doctrine was apparently confirmed by his success in curing or mitigating diseases for which the regular physicians could do nothing. For about a couple of years his reputation and practice increased to a surprising extent. But at the end of that time people began to recover themselves. Paracelsus had burst upon the schools with such novel views and methods, with such irresistible criticism, that all opposition was at first crushed flat. Gradully the sea began to rise. His enemies watched for ships and failures; the physicians maintained that he had no degree, and insisted that he should give proof of his qualifications. His manner of life was brought up against him. It was insinuated that he was a profane, that he was a conqurer, a necromancer, that, in fact, he was to be got rid of any cost as a troubler of the peace and of the time-honoured traditions of the medical corporations. Moreover, he had a pharmaceutical system of his own which did not harmonize with the commercial arrangements of the apothecaries, and he not only did not use up their drugs like the Galenists, but, in the exercise of his functions as town physicians, urged the authorities to keep a sharp eye on the purity of their wares, upon their knowledge of their art, and upon their transactions with their friends the physicians. The growing jealously and enmity culminating in the Lichtenfels dispute ; and, as the judges sides with the canon, to their everlasting discredit, Paracelsus had no alternative but to tell them his opinion of the whole case and of their notions of justice. So little doubt left he on the subject that his friends judges it prudent for him to leave Basel at once, as it had been resolved to punish him for the attack on the authorities of which he had been guilty. He departed from Basel in such haste that he carried nothing with him, and some chemical apparatus and other property were taken charge of by Oporinus, his pupil and amanuensis. He went first to Esslingen, where he remained for a brief period his wandering life, the course of which can be traced by the dates of his various writings. He thus visited in succession Colmar, Nuremberg, Appenzell, Zurich, Pfäffers, Augsburg, Villach, Meran, Middleheim, and other places, seldom staying a twelvemonth in any of them. In this way he spent some dozen years, till 1541, when he was invited by Archbishop Ernst to settle at Salzburg, under his protection. After his endless tossing about, his seemed a promise and place of repose. It proved, however, to be the complete and final rest that he found, for after a few months he died on the 24th of September. The cause of his death, like most details in his history, is uncertain. His enemies asserted that he died in a low tavern in consequence of a drunken debauch of some days’ duration. Others maintain that he was thrown down a steep place by some emissaries either of the physicians or of the apothecaries, both of whom he had during his life most grievously harassed. In proof of this surgeons have pointed out in Paracelsus’s skill a flaw or fracture, which could have been produced only during life. Authorities, however, are not agreed on this point, and it may be simplest to suspend belief until more evidence is got. He was buried in the churchyard of St Sebastian, but in 1752 his bones were removed to the porch of the church, and a monument of reddish-white marble was erected to his memory.

In making the attempt to ascertain what was Paracelsus’s character, and what were his philosophical and medical opinions, a very considerable difficulty presents itself at the outset. Of the voluminous writings which pass under his name, what are really his work, and what, if not actually composed by him, express his ideas? To this question no complete critical reply has as yet been given, though many opinions have been expressed. Dr Marx, for example, will admit only ten treatises as genuine. Dr Haeser allows seventeen for certain, a considerable number,—some twenty-four—as doubtful, and the rest—he enumerates eleven—as spurious. Dr. Mook does not accept these estimates, or the criteria by which the genuineness of a treatise is ascertained. But neither does he give altogether convincing criteria of his own, and, what is still less satisfactory, he does not apply them—such as they are—to decide the numerous doubtful cases. The only thing Mook has done is to draw up a list of the different editions of Paracelsus’ so-called works. This list is not complete in the enumeration of editions, and it is quite imperfect in bibliographical description, but with these and other serious defects it is the fullest at present extant. The first book by Paracelsus was printed at Augsburg in 1529. It is entitled Practica D. Theophrasti Paracelsi, gemacht auff Europen, and forms a small quarto pamphlet of the lectures he intended to deliver at Basel, but this can hardly be reckoned a specific work. During his lifetime fourteen works and editions were published, and thereafter, between 1542 and 1845, there were at least two hundred and thirty-four separate publications according to Mook’s enumeration. The first collected edition was made by Johann Huser in German. It was printed at Basel in 1589-91, in eleven volumes quarto, and is the best of all the editions. Huser did not employ the early printed copies only, but collected all the manuscripts which he could procure, and used them also in forming his text. The only drawback is that rather than omit anything which Paracelsus may have composed, he had gone to the opposite extreme ad included writings with which it is pretty certain Paracelsus had nothing to do. The second collected German edition is in four volumes folio, 1603-5. Parallel with it is 1603 the first collected Latin edition was made by Palthenius. It is in eleven volumes quarto, and was completed in 1605. Again, in 1616-18 appeared a reissue of the folio German edition of 1603, and finally in 1658 came the Geneva Latin version, in three volumes folio, edited by Bitiskius.

The work were originally composed in Swiss-German, a vigorous speech which Paracelsus wielded with unmistakable power. The Latin versions were made or edited by Adam von Bodenstein, Gerard Dorn, Michael Toxites, and Oporinus, about the middle of the 16th century. A few translations into other languages exist, as of the Chirurgia Magna and some other works into French, and of one or two into Dutch, Italian, and even Arabic. The translations into English amount to about a dozen, dating mostly from the middle of the 17th century. The original editions of Paracelsus’s works are getting less and less common; even the English versions are among the rarest of their class. Over and above the numerous editions, there is a bulky literature of an explanatory and controversial character, for which the world is indebted to Paracelsus’s followers and enemies. A good deal of it is taken up with a defence of chemical, or, as they were called, "spagyric," medicines against the attacks of the supporters of the Galenic pharmacopoeia.

The aim of all Paracelsus’s writing is to promote the progress of medicine, and he endeavours to put before physicians a grand ideal of their profession. In his attempts he takes the widest view of medicine. He bases it on the general relationship which man bears to nature as a whole: he cannot divorce the life of man from that of the universe; he cannot think of disease otherwise than as a phase of life. He is compelled therefore to rest his medical practice upon general theories of the present state of things; his medical system—if there is such a thing—is an adaptation of his cosmogony. It is this latter which has been the stumbling-block to many past critics of Paracelsus, and unless its character remembered it will be the same to others in the future. Dissatisfied with the Aristotelianism of his time of his time, Paracelsus turned with greater expectation to the Neoplatonism which was reviving. His eagerness to understand the relationship of man to the universe led him to the Kabbala, where these mysteries seemed to be explained, and from these unsubstantial materials he constructed, so far as it can be understood, his visionary philosophy. Interwoven with it, however, were the results of his own personal experience and work in natural history and chemical pharmacy and practical medicine, unfettered by any speculative generalizations, and so shrewd an observer as Paracelsus was must have often felt that his philosophy and his experience did not agree with one another. It was doubtless a very great ideal of medicine which Paracelsus raised; but when it came to realizing it in every-day life he could hardly do else than fail. During the three hundred years which have elapsed since his time knowledge both of the macrocosm and of the microcosm has increased far beyond what Paracelsus could have understood, even had it been all foretold him; the healing art has advanced also, though perhaps scarcely at the same rate, but it would be as hard for us as for him to apply any cosmogony, however rational, to curing disease. We are not one whit nearer the solution of the problems which puzzled Paracelsus than he was; the mystery of the origin, continuance, and stoppage of life is, perhaps through the abundance of light shed on other phenomena, even darker than it may have seemed to Paracelsus. If this be so it is no matter for surprise, or blame, or ridicule that he missed constructing a theory of the universe which at the same time would be a never-failing guide to him in the practical work of alleviating the evils which a residence in this universe seems to entail.

Some of his doctrines have been already alluded to in the article MEDICINE (q.v.), and it would serve no purpose to give even brief sketch of his views, seeing that their influence has passed entirely away, and that they are of interest only in their place in a general history of medicine and philosophy. Defective, howvener, as they may have been, and unfounded in fact, kabalistic doctrines led him to trace the dependence of the human body upon outer nature for its sustenance and cure. The doctrine of signatures, the supposed connexion of every part of the little world of man with a corresponding part of the great world of nature, was a fanciful and false exaggeration of this doctrine, but the idea carried in its train that of specifics. This led to the search for these , which were not to be found in the bewildering and untested mixtures of the Galenic prescriptions. Paracelsus had seen how bodies were purified and intensified by chemical operations, and he thought if plants and minerals could be made to yield their active principles it would surely be better to employ these than the crude and unprepared originals. He had besides arrived by some kind of intuition at the conclusion that the operations in the body were of a chemical character, and that when disordered they were to be put right by counter operations of the same kind. It may be claimed for Paracelsus that he embraced within the idea of chemical action something more than the alchemists did. Whether or not be believed in the philosopher’s elixir is of every little consequence. If he did, if at all, about it. He did believe in the immediate use for therapeutics of the salts and other preparations which his practical skill enabled him to make. Technically he was not a chemist; he had not concern himself either with the composition of his compounds or with an explanation of what occurred in their making. If he could get potent drugs to cure disease he was content, and he worked very hard in an empirical way to make them. That he found out some new compounds is certain; but not one great and marked discover cam be ascribed to him. Probably therefore his positive services are to be summed up in this wide application of chemical ideas to pharmacy and therapeutics; his indirect and possibly greater services are to be found in the stimulus, the revolutionary stimulus, of his ideas about method and general theory. It is not difficult, however, to criticize Paracelsus and to represent him as so far below the level of his time as to be utterly contemptible. It is difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to raise Paracelsus to a place among the great spirits of mankind. It is most difficult of all to ascertain what his true character really was, to appreciate aright this man of fervid imagination, of powerful and persistent convictions, of unbated honesty and love of truth, of keen insight into the errors (as he thoughts them) of his time, of a merciless will to lay bare these errors and to reform the abuses to which they gave rise, who in an instant offends us by his boasting, his grossness, his want of self-respect. It is a problem how to reconcile his ignorance, his weakness, his superstition, his crude notions, his erroneous observations, his ridiculous inferences and theories, with his grasp of method, his lofty of the true scope of medicine, his lucid statements, his incisive and epigrammatic criticisms of men and motives.

A character full of contradictory elements cannot but have had contradictory judgments passed on it; and after three hundred years the animus is as strong and the judgments are as diverse as ever. (J. F.)

Related articles:
Paracelsus and Chemical Medicine
Alchemy: Paracelsus and his Influence

The above article was written by: John Ferguson, LL.D.; Professor of Chemistry, Glasgow University from 1874; author of papers on the history of chemistry.

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