Paracelsus, or as his full name reads, Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was born November 11, 1493 in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. He died on September 24, 1541 in Salzburg, Austria. He was an alchemist, physician, botanist, and astrologer.
Paracelsus was the only child of a poor physician and chemist. His mother died when he was a young boy. He and his father later moved to Villach, Austria, where Paracelsus became an apprentice in the mines. Here was the first time he obtained some basic knowledge about metallurgy.
He began his studies at the age of fourteen. It is assumed that he attended several of the best universities in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, and Italy, yet was dissatisfied with all of them. At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus started to study medicine at the University of Basel and eventually obtained his degree in medicine from the University of Vienna. There is no concrete evidence of where he later received his doctorate though it is assumed he pursued studies and received a doctorate from the University of Ferrara in 1516. It is also believed that it was here where he changed his name, taking up the Latin “Paracelsus,” which means “greater than Celus,” after the encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celus.
Soon after his studies were completed, Paracelsus embarked on a long-lasting journey that led him throughout Europe, and, as it is widely assumed, India, Tibet, Constantinople, Arabia, Egypt and the Holy Land. He was apparently interested to learn about different cultures and discover alternative healing methods. During this time, Paracelsus also served as an army surgeon, where he first applied the alchemical practices that he had studied throughout his journeys.
After his return to Villach in 1524, Paracelsus had already acquired a certain reputation. Among others, he had met Desiderius Erasmus, who was very impressed by him and due to whose recommendation he was appointed town physician in Basel in 1527. This post included a professorship of medicine at the University of Basel, where students from all over Europe came to follow him and his practice.
Throughout his lectures Paracelsus deployed quite unorthodox methods. Highly critical of the contemporaneous medical practices of his day (i.e. insisting that wounds need to drain naturally), he burned the writings of many esteemed physicians, such as Galen and Avicenna, and stressed the importance of common sense and common language; he taught in German instead of Latin. As well, Paracelsus emphasized the curative power that was inherent in nature. In general, he clearly preferred experience and experimentation over knowledge. Yet such notions were “offences” and Paracelsus was threatened by the authorities and consequently forced to leave Basel in 1528. He then continued his journeys, writing several treatises while at the same time practicing as a doctor and alchemist.
Though often considered a “magician,” Paracelsus rejected magical theories. He truly believed in the healing power of natural treatments and recourses, convinced that only through a harmonic and balanced interrelation between man (microcosm) and nature (macrocosm) could health be obtained: “Man is a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements; and so he is their quintessence.” For him, it was clear that only through an understanding of the principles of the universe could the body be understood. Consequently, Paracelsus was not interested in the current and vogue discoveries and obsessions with human anatomy. He rejected it, arguing that one must study nature in order to understand the human body, and is attributed as saying thus, “Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided.” Not surprisingly then, astrology tended to play an important role for Paracelsus as well.
Paracelsus was also highly interested in toxicology and extracted all his medicines from plants. According to him, there is no substance that was not at the same time a poison. In compliance with the famous dictum attributed to him, the “dose makes the poison,” he was thus convinced that poisons can be cured by the same (or a similar) poison and therefore attempted to fight “evil” with evil, infamously claiming that “what makes a man ill also cures him.”
In general, Paracelsus’ theory of medicine is based upon four pillars, which he elaborates in his book Opus Paragranum (written in 1529/30): philosophy (knowledge of nature, that is, earth and water), astronomy (knowledge of the cosmos and the earth, that is, air and fire), alchemy (the whole cosmos, that is, the knowledge of all four elements) and virtue of the physician (indispensable for fulfilling the other three pillars). In a second major work entitled Opus Paramirum (1530/31), Paracelsus gives evidence of his belief that all diseases are rooted in one of the five Entia. On the physical level, he distinguishes between Ens Astrorum or Ens Astrale (the influence of the luminaries on the body), Ens Veneni (the influence of toxics in the body) and Ens Naturale (the physical constitution itself). On the spiritual level, he differentiates between Ens Spirituale (the influence of spirits) and Ens Dei (the influence of God).
One of Paracelsus’ most important contributions to medicine, however, was his discovery of new methods to treat wounds. By introducing chemistry, and minerals, into the field of medicine, Paracelsus initiated science as an integral part of medicine for the first time. He was also the first to name the element we know as “zinc”. In a treatise on syphilis he recommended the use of mercury, again convinced that it is the dose that makes the poison. With Von der Bergsucht oder Bergkranckheiten (On the Miners' Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners) Paracelsus greatly added to the treatment of silicosis, the “miner’s disease,” arguing that the latter was caused by toxic vapours and not, as it was the common belief, to be seen as a punishment by mountain spirits.
He was a firm believer in the body’s ability to heal itself and the relation between the mind and body. Being one of the first, Paracelsus regarded mental illness as being “real” illness. He believed that many diseases had their roots in psychological problems, and was furthermore the first known figure to make mention of the word “unconscious.”
Throughout his life, Paracelsus was a prolific writer. Among his important writings are Neun Bücher Archidoxis (Nine Books of Archidoxus, around 1526-1527), a reference manual, Philosophia Sagax (1536), Astronomia Magna (around 1537), and Sieben Defensiones (Seven Defensiones, 1538). Although he was prolific, not very many of his writings were published during his lifetime. Among those that were, is also his most important text, Die große Wundarzney (The Great Surgery Book, 1536), which granted him immense success and reputation.
In 1541 Paracelsus eventually settled in Salzburg on the invitation of the archbishop Ernst of Bavaria. Shortly thereafter he died and the actual cause of his death remains unknown. After Paracelsus’ death, a stream of his writings emerged (though the exact date of their releases are not always clear), among them were his numerous critical theological works.
Some of the most important books written by Paracelsus include: Wundt unnd Leibartznei (1549), Philosophia magna, tractus aliquot (1567), Von den Krankheiten so die Vernunfft Berauben (1567), Kleine Wundartzney (1579), Opus Chirurgicum, Bodenstein (1581) and Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus (1590).