Paracelsus was a renowned German physician born in Switzerland. His path breaking findings in botany and medicine made him a pioneer in his field. Paracelsus was a firm follower of the cosmos and the spiritual influences of it on man and nature. Paracelsus, being a believer of Greek classical elements, Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether treated illnesses and human health as factors relying heavily on man’s harmony and nature. Although Paracelsus was the first person to introduce mixing of chemicals and minerals in medicine, his views and approach were much religious and philosophical. Paracelsus stated that there was no inner bodily factor that caused illnesses but there were external agents that caused degeneration of the body. Paracelsus negated all previous theories put forward by Hippocrates and Galen and showed the world (in his book On the Miners' Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners) how an external factor like working with metals can cause health hazards. Paracelsus was a prominent figure in the medical, alchemic, chemical, botanical and astrological field. His contributions in medicine and theories on proper dosage are regarded as legendary.
There is much confusion surrounding the exact day (in the month of November) when Paracelsus was born. However, the two known dates that are assumed to be the date of Paracelsus’ birth are 11 November, 1493 or 17 December, 1493. Paracelsus was born and grew up in Einsiedeln, (a small village like municipality district) Switzerland. Paracelsus’ father Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim was a German chemist and physician while his mother was of Swiss origin who died when Paracelsus was a child.
In 1502 Paracelsus moved out with his family to a large city named Villach, Carinthia, in Austria because of his father’s work related commitments. Paracelsus’ father, being a noteworthy physician, imparted great knowledge of humanism and theology on young Paracelsus. He received his initial education from his father, clerics and from the convent school of St. Paul's Abbey in the Lavanttal.
Paracelsus took up medicine at the University of Basel as his main stream of study at the age of 16. Later he went off to Vienna. He received his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in northern Italy.
Later Years and Career
Paracelsus moved from one nation to another on his journey as a gipsy physician. He was a wanderer who often took up the job of a miner. His travelling mind took him across Europe through countries like Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Russia.
Paracelsus became a notable physician in the early 16th century. While practicing as a physician he was hugely interested and drew influences from renaissance centric philosophies like Hermetic (with religious and philosophical bases), neo-platonic (mystical philosophical base) and Pythagorean philosophies and thoughts. Paracelsus rejected most of the prevalent and widely accepted world views and magic theories of medicine. He followed most of the contemporary university physicians who practiced astrology while pursuing studies in the field of medicine. Astrology gained maximum importance in Paracelsus’ medicine. He indulged himself for long hours in practicing astrology in order to take note and write consistently in order to build astrological talismans for curing disease. Paracelsus produced various forms of talismans for different type of diseases and ailments. He also made talismans suitable for all zodiacs.
Paracelsus strongly practiced medicine and astrology which made him invent an alphabet, Alphabet of the Magi which was created by him to engrave angelic names on talismans.
While working on medicines, Paracelsus brought together the use of chemicals in medicines. In 1526 he coined the term ‘zink’ for the chemical element zinc. He derived the word from old German word ‘zinke’ which meant pointed. He found the zinc crystals to have a pointed appearance.
Paracelsus defied all prevalent norms and inclined himself towards learning and persistently experimenting on human body.
Paracelsus is also known for discovering ‘laudanum’ (presently common as Tincture of Opium) which is an alcoholic herbal preparation.
Works, Ideas and Beliefs
Paracelsus was known for his arrogance. He gained the wrath of other contemporary physicians in Europe for his arrogance. At one point of time Paracelsus was holding the chair of medicine at the University of Basel when he was allegedly involved in publicly putting traditional medical books on fire. Some of his colleagues in the University heard about Paracelsus’ act and got very angry. Further incidents like a legal dispute over a physician's fee which he had litigated to collect, resulted in Paracelsus being thrown out of Basel.
He started his journeys yet again wandering around Europe, Africa and Asia Minor to know more about hidden knowledge. Paracelsus had a very difficult time finding publishers for his newly written books and revised old manuscripts. In spite of all his troubles Paracelsus could publish his book Die grosse Wundartznei (The Great Surgery Book) in 1536 which made him become famous again.
Paracelsus was a strict follower and a firm believer of the classical Greek concept of elements. However, he added his own finds to this theory. He stated that the cosmos (on another platform) is based on three spiritual substances: the tria prima of Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt. According to him these were not general and simple substances as they are found to be but had broad influences on every object as they were big entities and broad principles which gave every object inner essences and outward forms. He further explained his interpretations of the 3 spiritual substances – mercury was the representation of the transformative agent having fusibility and volatility, Sulfur represented flammability which acted as a binding agent between a substance and its transformation and lastly Salt was all about fixity and no combustibility which was a solidifying/substantiating agent. Paracelsus explained that during the time a wood is being burned there are certain elements that are seen which reflect what it constitutes - Smoke reflects Mercury, flame reflects Sulfur, and Ash reflects Salt. He further explained human identity on the lines of 3 spiritual substances. He stated that human soul was an embodiment of sulphur representing emotions and desires, human body reflected salt and mercury represented the spirit reflecting imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties. Paracelsus’ theories require deep understanding of the chemical nature of the tria prima which helped physicians discover the platforms and the means of curing diseases.
Paracelsus, being a follower of hermetic philosophy, viewed that all bodily sickness and health relied greatly on harmony of man (the microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He championed the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He further stated that the human body must have balanced minerals in their bodies and illnesses could well be treated and cured by chemical remedies. All these theories were new and totally different from the previously written (and believed) theories in the medicine world.
Paracelsus stated that there were certain substances and elements that humans interacted with, which were ‘poisons’ not necessarily bad ones. He said that diseases were a result of poisons. He did not term poisons as negative components because of the part roles played by related substances and other parts depended on the dose of the substance which would term it as poisonous or not. He explained that evil things could be cured with evil. So poisons could actually possess beneficial medical effects. According to him everything in the universe had connections with each other. He viewed universe as one logical organism diffused by a superior life-giving spirit which entirely formed man and god. This view was rejected by the Church as it believed there was always a difference between god and man.
Paracelsus wrote a book ‘On the Miners' Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners’ where he wholly noted and explained how metalworking has its imminent occupational hazards. The book also stated all possible treatments and prevention strategies.
Another great contribution of Paracelsus is his theory of toxicology. He wrote that all things are poison and there is nothing without poison and only a dose would not let the thing be poisonous. He was the first person to confirm that substances considered toxic are harmless when taken in small doses. Similarly, he also stated that a generally harmless substance when taken in large quantities could turn deadly.
Paracelsus was the first physician to ever mention the clinical and scientific use and need of the unconscious. He wrote on his ‘Von den Krankeiten’ that certain diseases affect people who think about them. Unconscious fantasizing about the diseases (hearing or seeing) was traced as the origin of certain diseases by Paracelsus. This was his major contribution in the field of psychotherapy.
Paracelsus died on 24 September 1541 due to natural causes when he was supposedly 47 years old. His wish was to get buried in the cemetery at the church of St Sebastian in Salzburg which was rightly carried out. Presently his remains are in a tomb in the porch of the church.