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proponent of the treatment of the whole person


Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born in a village near Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a physician and chemist, in 1493. He received his early education at the town school in Augsburg, Austria, which specialized in training overseers and analysts for the local mines. At the age of 14 he began to travel, visiting most of the leading universities in Europe in hopes of finding a teacher whose views he could respect. An exceptionally outspoken and unconventional young man, however, he tended to offend most teachers and others in authority. Capable of fierce invective, he once told a group of professors with whom he disagreed: "You are not worthy for a dog to lift his hind leg against you." His style of grandiose speech gave rise to the word "bombast," derived from his surname.

Despite his inability to respect his professors, Philippus received his baccalaureate in medicine in Vienna in 1510 and his doctorate in Ferrara, Italy, in 1516. At about that same time he adopted the name Paracelsus, meaning above Celsus, to show his contempt for the ancient Roman physician who was so admired in the 16th century.

Paracelsus resumed his travels after receiving his degrees, going as far west as Ireland, as far east as Constantinople, and into Russia. He served as an army surgeon in various local wars, and constantly sought to add to his knowledge of medical treatment. But he never lost his love of stomping on the toes of the academic establishment, or for attacking by ridicule much that was dubious, worthless, or downright harmful in the orthodox medicine of his day. When he took up a teaching position in Basle, Switzerland, he scandalized the authorities by publicly burning the works of the renowned Greek physician Galen. He made matters worse by opening his lectures to everyone and teaching in the vernacular German instead of Latin. When short of a word he would often invent one, usually without defining it. Some of those words, such as "zinc" and "alcohol," have passed into popular usage.

Paracelsus' lectures were very popular with students, who came from the far ends of Europe to hear them. But he never stayed in one place for long and made enemies wherever he went.

A painting of Paracelsus lecturing on the Elixir Vitae, the elixir of life. In addition to prolonging life, this magical substance was supposed to be able to transmute base metals into gold, and was hence synonomous with the philosopher's stone.
Paracelsus delivering a lecture

Like Hippocrates, Paracelsus believed in the treatment of the whole person and in nature's own healing tendencies. He anticipated homeopathic medicine in his statement that, in small doses, what "makes a man ill also cures him." It is said that he devised an effective treatment for the plague by making a pill of dough and a minute speck of the patient's excreta. He also saw the importance of "mental power" as an element in the healing process.

Illustration from Paracelsus' work Prognosticatio, emphasizing the necessity of man's humility to God. He considered theology an essential part of medicine because a doctor should also treat the soul.
illustration from 'Prognosticatio'

A brilliant diagnostician, Paracelsus was the first to suggest that diseases of the chest in miners were caused by the inhalation of metallic "vapors" rather than by malicious spirits. He connected the lack of minerals in drinking water with the incidence of goiter in certain districts. And, his description of syphilis was a pioneering treatise which first suggested the treatment of it with mercury compounds.

An illustration for a medical work by Paracelsus which shows him treating a patient. Paracelsus said that since man contains all the elements, and needs them for the curing of his illnesses, a good physician must understand all the physical sciences as well as alchemy.
illustration for a medical work by Paracelsus

Paracelsus' career reached its peak with publication of The Great Surgery Book in 1536. He was cultivated by nobles and princes across Europe, but continued to move from city to city and from country to country till the end of his life, and continued to irritate and infuriate his "peers" everywhere he went. He died in 1541 at an inn in Salzburg, Austria, where he had gone to take up an appointment in the service of Duke Ernst of Bavaria.

Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979


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This page was last updated on 10/24/2017.