A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter VII
From Paracelsus to Harvey
In the year 1526 there appeared a new lecturer on the platform at the University at Basel - a small, beardless, effeminate-looking person - who had already inflamed all Christendom with his peculiar philosophy, his revolutionary methods of treating diseases, and his unparalleled success in curing them. A man who was to be remembered in after-time by some as the father of modern chemistry and the founder of modern medicine; by others as madman, charlatan, impostor; and by still others as a combination of all these. This soft-cheeked, effeminate, woman-hating man, whose very sex has been questioned, was Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541).

To appreciate his work, something must be known of the life of the man. He was born near Maria-Einsiedeln, in Switzerland, the son of a poor physician of the place. He began the study of medicine under the instruction of his father, and later on came under the instruction of several learned churchmen. At the age of sixteen he entered the University of Basel, but, soon becoming disgusted with the philosophical teachings of the time, he quitted the scholarly world of dogmas and theories and went to live among the miners in the Tyrol, in order that he might study nature and men at first hand. Ordinary methods of study were thrown aside, and he devoted his time to personal observation - the only true means of gaining useful knowledge, as he preached and practised ever after. Here he became familiar with the art of mining, learned the physical properties of minerals, ores, and metals, and acquired some knowledge of mineral waters. More important still, he came in contact with such diseases, wounds, and injuries as miners are subject to, and he tried his hand at the practical treatment of these conditions, untrammelled by the traditions of a profession in which his training had been so scant.

Having acquired some empirical skill in treating diseases, Paracelsus set out wandering from place to place all over Europe, gathering practical information as he went, and learning more and more of the medicinal virtues of plants and minerals. His wanderings covered a period of about ten years, at the end of which time he returned to Basel, where he was soon invited to give a course of lectures in the university.

These lectures were revolutionary in two respects - they were given in German instead of time-honored Latin, and they were based upon personal experience rather than upon the works of such writers as Galen and Avicenna. Indeed, the iconoclastic teacher spoke with open disparagement of these revered masters, and openly upbraided his fellow-practitioners for following their tenets. Naturally such teaching raised a storm of opposition among the older physicians, but for a time the unparalleled success of Paracelsus in curing diseases more than offset his unpopularity. Gradually, however, his bitter tongue and his coarse personality rendered him so unpopular, even among his patients, that, finally, his liberty and life being jeopardized, he was obliged to flee from Basel, and became a wanderer. He lived for brief periods in Colmar, Nuremberg, Appenzell, Zurich, Pfeffers, Augsburg, and several other cities, until finally at Salzburg his eventful life came to a close in 1541. His enemies said that he had died in a tavern from the effects of a protracted debauch; his supporters maintained that he had been murdered at the instigation of rival physicians and apothecaries.

But the effects of his teachings had taken firm root, and continued to spread after his death. He had shown the fallibility of many of the teachings of the hitherto standard methods of treating diseases, and had demonstrated the advantages of independent reasoning based on observation. In his Magicum he gives his reasons for breaking with tradition. "I did," he says, "embrace at the beginning these doctrines, as my adversaries (followers of Galen) have done, but since I saw that from their procedures nothing resulted but death, murder, stranglings, anchylosed limbs, paralysis, and so forth, that they held most diseases incurable. . . . therefore have I quitted this wretched art, and sought for truth in any other direction. I asked myself if there were no such thing as a teacher in medicine, where could I learn this art best? Nowhere better than the open book of nature, written with God's own finger." We shall see, however, that this "book of nature" taught Paracelsus some very strange lessons. Modesty was not one of these. "Now at this time," he declares, "I, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Bombast, Monarch of the Arcana, was endowed by God with special gifts for this end, that every searcher after this supreme philosopher's work may be forced to imitate and to follow me, be he Italian, Pole, Gaul, German, or whatsoever or whosoever he be. Come hither after me, all ye philosophers, astronomers, and spagirists. . . . I will show and open to you ... this corporeal regeneration."[1]

Paracelsus based his medical teachings on four "pillars" - philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue of the physician - a strange-enough equipment surely, and yet, properly interpreted, not quite so anomalous as it seems at first blush. Philosophy was the "gate of medicine," whereby the physician entered rightly upon the true course of learning; astronomy, the study of the stars, was all-important because "they (the stars) caused disease by their exhalations, as, for instance, the sun by excessive heat"; alchemy, as he interpreted it, meant the improvement of natural substances for man's benefit; while virtue in the physician was necessary since "only the virtuous are permitted to penetrate into the innermost nature of man and the universe."

All his writings aim to promote progress in medicine, and to hold before the physician a grand ideal of his profession. In this his views are wide and far-reaching, based on the relationship which man bears to nature as a whole; but in his sweeping condemnations he not only rejected Galenic therapeutics and Galenic anatomy, but condemned dissections of any kind. He laid the cause of all diseases at the door of the three mystic elements - salt, sulphur, and mercury. In health he supposed these to be mingled in the body so as to be indistinguishable; a slight separation of them produced disease; and death he supposed to be the result of their complete separation. The spiritual agencies of diseases, he said, had nothing to do with either angels or devils, but were the spirits of human beings.

He believed that all food contained poisons, and that the function of digestion was to separate the poisonous from the nutritious. In the stomach was an archaeus, or alchemist, whose duty was to make this separation. In digestive disorders the archaeus failed to do this, and the poisons thus gaining access to the system were "coagulated" and deposited in the joints and various other parts of the body. Thus the deposits in the kidneys and tartar on the teeth were formed; and the stony deposits of gout were particularly familiar examples of this. All this is visionary enough, yet it shows at least a groping after rational explanations of vital phenomena.

Like most others of his time, Paracelsus believed firmly in the doctrine of "signatures" - a belief that every organ and part of the body had a corresponding form in nature, whose function was to heal diseases of the organ it resembled. The vagaries of this peculiar doctrine are too numerous and complicated for lengthy discussion, and varied greatly from generation to generation. In general, however, the theory may be summed up in the words of Paracelsus: "As a woman is known by her shape, so are the medicines." Hence the physicians were constantly searching for some object of corresponding shape to an organ of the body. The most natural application of this doctrine would be the use of the organs of the lower animals for the treatment of the corresponding diseased organs in man. Thus diseases of the heart were to be treated with the hearts of animals, liver disorders with livers, and so on. But this apparently simple form of treatment had endless modifications and restrictions, for not all animals were useful. For example, it was useless to give the stomach of an ox in gastric diseases when the indication in such cases was really for the stomach of a rat. Nor were the organs of animals the only "signatures" in nature. Plants also played a very important role, and the herb-doctors devoted endless labor to searching for such plants. Thus the blood-root, with its red juice, was supposed to be useful in blood diseases, in stopping hemorrhage, or in subduing the redness of an inflammation.

Paracelsus's system of signatures, however, was so complicated by his theories of astronomy and alchemy that it is practically beyond comprehension. It is possible that he himself may have understood it, but it is improbable that any one else did - as shown by the endless discussions that have taken place about it. But with all the vagaries of his theories he was still rational in his applications, and he attacked to good purpose the complicated "shot-gun" prescriptions of his contemporaries, advocating more simple methods of treatment.

The ever-fascinating subject of electricity, or, more specifically, "magnetism," found great favor with him, and with properly adjusted magnets he claimed to be able to cure many diseases. In epilepsy and lockjaw, for example, one had but to fasten magnets to the four extremities of the body, and then, "when the proper medicines were given," the cure would be effected. The easy loop-hole for excusing failure on the ground of improper medicines is obvious, but Paracelsus declares that this one prescription is of more value than "all the humoralists have ever written or taught."

Since Paracelsus condemned the study of anatomy as useless, he quite naturally regarded surgery in the same light. In this he would have done far better to have studied some of his predecessors, such as Galen, Paul of Aegina, and Avicenna. But instead of "cutting men to pieces," he taught that surgeons would gain more by devoting their time to searching for the universal panacea which would cure all diseases, surgical as well as medical. In this we detect a taint of the popular belief in the philosopher's stone and the magic elixir of life, his belief in which have been stoutly denied by some of his followers. He did admit, however, that one operation alone was perhaps permissible - lithotomy, or the "cutting for stone."

His influence upon medicine rests undoubtedly upon his revolutionary attitude, rather than on any great or new discoveries made by him. It is claimed by many that he brought prominently into use opium and mercury, and if this were indisputably proven his services to medicine could hardly be overestimated. Unfortunately, however, there are good grounds for doubting that he was particularly influential in reintroducing these medicines. His chief influence may perhaps be summed up in a single phrase - he overthrew old traditions.

To Paracelsus's endeavors, however, if not to the actual products of his work, is due the credit of setting in motion the chain of thought that developed finally into scientific chemistry. Nor can the ultimate aim of the modern chemist seek a higher object than that of this sixteenth-century alchemist, who taught that "true alchemy has but one aim and object, to extract the quintessence of things, and to prepare arcana, tinctures, and elixirs which may restore to man the health and soundness he has lost."





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.