Today is possibly the birthday in 1493 (or possibly 17th December) of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known to history as Paracelsus, a Swiss German philosopher, physician, botanist, astrologer, and general occultist. He is credited with a lot of things that he probably does not deserve, such as being the founder of toxicology. He is usually fairly credited with giving zinc its name, calling it zincum. Paracelsus’ most important legacy is undoubtedly his critique of scholasticism in medicine, science, and theology – the idea that all previously acknowledged authorities must be revered and built upon rather than challenged. Paracelsus was quite happy to discard texts he deemed worthless – pure heresy in his time. Most of his theoretical work does not withstand modern scientific scrutiny, but his general insights helped revolutionize scientific methods over time.
Paracelsus was born and raised in the village of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, was a Swabian (German) chemist and physician. His mother was Swiss and probably a bondswoman of the abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland where he was born. She is believed to have died in his childhood. In 1502 the family moved to Villach in Carinthia where Paracelsus’ father worked as a physician, attending to the medical needs of the pilgrims and inhabitants of the cloister.
Paracelsus was educated by his father in botany, medicine, mineralogy, mining, and natural philosophy. He also received a humanistic and theological education from local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.
He was employed as a military surgeon in the Venetian service in 1522. Paracelsus appears to have been very well traveled, so it is probable that he was involved in the many wars waged between 1517 and 1524 in Holland, Scandinavia, Prussia, Tartary, the countries under Venetian influence, and possibly the near East. His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia.
Paracelsus was well known as a difficult man. He gained a reputation for being arrogant and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. Some even claim he was a habitual drinker. He was prone to many outbursts of abusive language, abhorred untested theory, and ridiculed anybody who placed more importance on titles than practice (‘if disease put us to the test, all our splendor, title, ring, and name will be as much help as a horse’s tail’). During his time as a professor at University of Basel, he invited barber-surgeons, alchemists, apothecaries, and others lacking academic background to serve as examples of his belief that only those who practiced an art knew it: ‘The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.’ He held the chair of medicine at the University of Basel and city physician for less than a year. He angered his colleagues by lecturing in German instead of Latin in order to make medical knowledge more accessible to the common people. He is credited as the first to do so. He was the first to publicly condemn the medical authority of Avicenna and Galen and threw their writings into a bonfire on St. John’s Day in 1527.
In 1526 he bought the rights of citizenship in Strasbourg to establish his own practice. But soon after he was called to Basel to the sickbed of Johann Froben or Frobenius, a successful printer and publisher. Based on historical accounts, Paracelsus cured Frobenius. During that time, the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam, also at the University of Basel, witnessed the medical skills of Paracelsus, and the two scholars initiated a dialogue by letter on medical and theological subjects.
He was a contemporary of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther. During his life, he was compared with Luther partly because his ideas were different from the mainstream and partly because of openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine. This act struck people as similar to Luther’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Paracelsus rejected that comparison. Famously Paracelsus said, “I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire.”
After slandering his opponents with vicious epithets due to a dispute over a physician’s fee, Paracelsus had to leave Basel secretly fearing punishment by the court. He became a tramp, wandering through Central Europe again. Around 1529, he officially adopted the name Paracelsus which is presumed to mean “surpassing Celsus,” the Roman writer on medicine, although, I suppose, it could also be “like Celsus” in that they both made novel contributions (“para” can mean “enlarge” in late Latin). In 1530, at the instigation of the medical faculty at the University of Leipzig, the city council of Nürnberg prohibited the printing of Paracelsus’ works. He revised old manuscripts and wrote new ones but had trouble finding publishers. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartznei (“The Great Surgery Book”) was published and enabled him to regain fame.
He died at the age of 47 in Salzburg, and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St. Sebastian in Salzburg. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of that church. After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and his therapies became more widely known and used. Most of Paracelsus’ writings were published after his death and still much controversy prevailed. He was accused of leading “a legion of homicide physicians” and his books were called “heretical and scandalous”. However, after many decades in 1618, a new pharmacopeia by the Royal College of Physicians in London included Paracelsian remedies.
His motto was “Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest” (“Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself.”)
Paracelsus was one of the first medical professionals to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine although his ideas were not useful. From his study of the elements as they were conceived in his time (earth, water, fire, and air), Paracelsus adopted a tripartite alternative to explain the nature of medicine: sulphur, mercury, and salt. He mentions the model first in Opus paramirum dating to about 1530. Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases. He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He demonstrated his theory by burning a piece of wood. The fire was the work of sulphur, the smoke was mercury, and the residual ash was salt. Paracelsus also believed that mercury, sulphur, and salt provided a good explanation for the nature of medicine because each of these properties existed in many physical forms. The tria prima also defined human identity. Sulphur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); salt represented the body; mercury epitomized the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease. With every disease, the symptoms depended on which of the three principals caused the ailment. Paracelsus theorized that materials which are poisonous in large doses may be curative in small doses (one of the few things he got right).
His alchemical views led him to believe that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of Human (microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He believed that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. As a result of this hermetical idea of harmony, the universe’s macrocosm was represented in every person as a microcosm. An example of this correspondence is the doctrine of signatures used to identify curative powers of plants. If a plant looked like a part of the body, then this signified its ability to cure this given anatomy. Therefore, the root of the orchid looks like a testicle and can therefore heal any testicle associated illness. Paracelsus also suggested that just as humans can ward off the influence of evil spirits with morality, they can also ward off diseases with good health.
Paracelsus believed that true anatomy could only be understood once the nourishment for each part of the body was discovered. He believed that therefore, one must know the influence of the stars on these particular body parts. Diseases were caused by poisons brought from the stars. However, ‘poisons’ were not necessarily something negative, in part because related substances interacted, but also because only the dose determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Paracelsus further claimed that like cures like. If a star or poison caused a disease, then it must be countered by another star or poison. Paracelsus viewed the universe as one coherent organism pervaded by a uniting lifegiving spirit, and this in its entirety, humanity included, was God. His views put him at odds with the Church which saw a necessary difference between the Creator and the created.
His work Die große Wundarzney is a forerunner of antisepsis. This specific empirical knowledge originated from his personal experiences as an army physician in the Venetian wars. Paracelsus demanded that the application of cow dung, feathers and other obnoxious concoctions to wounds be stopped in favor of keeping the wounds clean, saying, “If you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself.” During his time as a military surgeon, Paracelsus was exposed to the crudity of medical knowledge at the time, when doctors believed that infection was a natural part of the healing process. He advocated for cleanliness and protection of wounds, as well as the regulation of diet.
One of his most overlooked achievements was the systematic study of minerals and the curative powers of alpine mineral springs. His countless wanderings also brought him deep into many areas of the Alps, where such therapies were already practiced on a less common scale than today. Paracelsus’ major work On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners documented the occupational hazards of metalworking, and included treatment and prevention strategies.
Paracelsus is credited with providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: “Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.” Paracelsus also called for the humane treatment of the mentally ill although he was ignored for several centuries. He saw them not to be possessed by evil spirits, but merely “brothers ensnared in a treatable malady.”
Paracelsus’ home of Einsiedeln is in Schwyz canton, which gives Switzerland its name. Älplermagronen is a popular and traditional recipe from the region. It’s basically pasta and potatoes baked in a creamy cheese sauce and served with hot apple sauce. I’m not sure how healthy it is, but in small doses should be all right.
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 lb penne pasta
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 tbsp butter or oil
1 cup grated melting cheese (Gruyère, Appenzeller, Raclette)
½ cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 375° F.
Cook the potatoes and pasta separately until they are al dente. Drain and reserve.
Heat the butter or oil over medium-low heat in a frying pan, add the onions and sauté them until they are golden brown.
Mix the pasta, potatoes, and cheese together and place in a casserole dish. Pour the cream over the dish and spread the browned onions on top. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt.
Bake covered for 10-15 minutes until the dish is hot and the cheese is melted. Serve with warmed applesauce.