Paracelsus

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was a Swiss physician, alchemist, lay theologian, and philosopher of the German Renaissance.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the “medical revolution” of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is credited as the “father of toxicology”. Paracelsus also had a substantial impact as a prophet or diviner, his “Prognostications” being studied by Rosicrucians in the 1600s. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works.

Paracelsus was born in Egg, a village close to the Etzel Pass in Einsiedeln, Schwyz. He was born in a house right next to a bridge across the Sihl river (known as Teufelsbrücke). The historical house, dated to the 14th century, was destroyed in 1814. The Restaurant Krone now stands in its place. His father Wilhelm (d. 1534) was a chemist and physician, an illegitimate descendant of the Swabian noble family Bombast von Hohenheim. It has been suggested that Paracelsus’s descent from the Bombast of Hohenheim family was his own invention, and that his father was in fact called Höhener and was a native of Gais in Appenzell, but it is plausible that Wilhelm was the illegitimate son of Georg Bombast von Hohenheim (1453–1499), commander of the Order of Saint John in Rohrdorf.

Paracelsus’s mother was probably a native of the Einsiedeln region and a bonds-woman of Einsiedeln Abbey, who before her marriage worked as superintendent in the abbey’s hospital. Paracelsus in his writings repeatedly made references to his rustic origins and occasionally used Eremita (from the name of Einsiedeln, meaning “hermitage”) as part of his name.

Paracelsus’ mother probably died in 1502, after which Paracelsus’s father moved to Villach, Carinthia, where he 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 profound humanistic and theological education from local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. He specifically accounts for being tutored by Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his medical doctorate from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.

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 printer Johann Frobenius, reportedly curing him. During that time, the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, also at the University of Basel, witnessed the medical skills of Paracelsus, and the two scholars initiated a letter dialogue on medical and theological subjects.

In 1527, Paracelsus was a licensed physician in Basel with the privilege of lecturing at the University of Basel. Basel at the time was a centre of Renaissance humanism, and Paracelsus here came into contact with Erasmus of Rotterdam, Wolfgang Lachner, and Johannes Oekolampad.

As Erasmus fell ill when he left Basel, he wrote to Paracelsus, who was then city physician and Professor of Medicine at Basel University:I cannot offer theeA reward equal to thy art and knowledgeI surely offer thee a grateful soulThou hast recalled from the shades of Frobenius who is my other half:If thou restorest me also thou restorest each through the other.

Paracelsus’s lectures at Basel university unusually were held in German, not Latin. He stated that he wanted his lectures to be available to everyone. He also published harsh criticism of the Basel physicians and apothecaries, creating political turmoil to the point of his life being threatened. In a display of his contempt for conventional medicine, Paracelsus publicly burned editions of the works of Galen and Avicenna. 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 splendour, title, ring, and name will be as much help as a horse’s tail’). During his time as a professor at the 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 practised an art knew it: ‘The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.’ Paracelsus was compared with Martin Luther because of his openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine. 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.” Being threatened with an unwinnable lawsuit, he left Basel for Alsace in February 1528.

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