Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

The Swiss doctor and alchemist Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) is noted for opposing Galen's medical theories and for founding medical chemistry.

The real name of Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was born in Einsiedeln. His father instructed him in Latin, botany, chemistry, and the history of religion. When Theophrastus was 9, his father was appointed town physician at Villach, and the boy attended the mining school there. For his secondary education he went to Basel. Through visits to Italy he learned of classical medical theory; after studies in the faculty of arts at the University of Vienna, he went back to Italy, receiving his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ferrara in 1515. During this Ferrara period he took the name Paracelsus.

Paracelsus resumed his study of metals briefly at Schwatz in the Tirol and then began a series of travels that lasted, almost without exception, to the end of his life. He served as an army physician in Denmark from 1518 to 1521, and the following year he joined the Venetian military forces. By 1526 Paracelsus had settled at Tübingen and gathered around him a small group of students. Later that year he was on the road again, this time to Strassburg, where he bought his citizenship and apparently intended to settle down.

During all these travels, Paracelsus was spreading the anti-Aristotelian position that the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were composed of primary principles: a fireproducing principle (sulfur), a principle of liquidity (mercury), and a principle of solidity (salt). From a medical viewpoint, salt was thought to be a cleanser, sulfur a consuming agent, and mercury a transporter of the product of consumption. Shaping the normal healthy organism is a principle called an archeus. When an imbalance occurs among the three principles in man, there is disease, and the office of the doctor is to help the archeus by supplying the right medicines. Advocating the treatment of like by like, Paracelsus therapy is thus homeopathic in theory. During his travels he acquired a reputation as a healer; all his practical success would support his theory of the three principles.

In 1526 Paracelsus was summoned to Basel to treat a patient, and he remained on as town physician, a post that included a lectureship at the university and supervision of the apothecaries. His lectures drew large audiences, but his teaching and style were unpopular with the authorities. He openly challenged the traditional books on medicine and the teaching of medicine by textual analysis; he preferred to lecture in German rather than Latin; he refused to prescribe the medicines of the local apothecaries; and, though sympathetic with some of the ideas of the Reformation, he was a Roman Catholic. In 1528 Paracelsus had to flee to escape arrest and imprisonment.

Shortly before the flight from Basel, Paracelsus completed the most important of his earlier works, Nine Books of Archidoxus, a reference manual on secret remedies. Between 1530 and 1534 he wrote his bestknown works, the Paragranum and the Paramirum, both dealing with cosmology. He returned to medical writing with the Books of the Greater Surgery in editions of 1536 and 1537; this was his only work that was a publishing success. The Astronomia magna, done between 1537 and 1539, shows his most mature thinking about nature and man.

Paracelsus claimed that the pillars of his outlook on the world were philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue. It might be convenient to sample this outlook by emphasizing only alchemy here. For Paracelsus, alchemy was not only an earthly science but a spiritual one, requiring moral virtue on the part of the knower. At his highest, such a knower was not a theoretician but an activist; Paracelsus emphasized wisdom as practical rather than contemplative.

Paracelsus believed that to every evil there was a counteracting good and to every disease, a cure. He valued alchemy not because it might turn baser metals into gold, but because it might discover the means of restoring youth and prolonging life. He was looking for something like an elixir. Yet alchemy was not restricted to the chemist; it was at work in the whole of nature. Relating his natural philosophy to his religious beliefs, he pointed out that Christ came not as a scholar or a philosopher but as a healer. Many of Christ's miracles were healings of the sick. Most importantly, he healed the wounds of sin. Alchemy thus provided Paracelsus with a natural philosophy and a view of Christianity.

Paracelsus underscored the relation between the macrocosm and the microcosm as an argument for going to nature to understand man. According to his macrocosm-microcosm theory, "Everything that astronomical theory has profoundly fathomed by studying the planetary objects and the stars…can also be applied to the firmament of the body." The physician is the god of the microcosm. Such was the cosmology which Paracelsus espoused.

During the post-Basel period and especially after 1531, Paracelsus appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion which prompted him to renounce material possessions. In 1534 he came as a beggar and tramp, to use his own words, to Innsbruck, Vipiteno, and Merano. The plague was raging in these cities, and he ministered to the victims. In this new spirit that animated him, Paracelsus was especially attentive to the poor and the needy. He tended to a more mystical view of man and especially of the physician. He had long stressed a so-called light of nature, which was human reason. He thought that such a light was a radiation of the Holy Spirit.

In 1540 Paracelsus arrived in Salzburg a sick man, and he died there on Sept. 24, 1541.


Further Reading on Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

Many of Paracelsus' own writings are gathered in Jolande Jacobi, ed., Paracelsus: Selected Writings, translated by Norbert N. Guterman (2d ed. 1958). Biographies of his life and work include Anna M. Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus (1911); John Maxson Stillman, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus (1920); John Hargrave, The Life and Soul of Paracelsus (1951); Henry M. Pachter, Paracelsus: Magic into Science (1951), and Sidney Rosen, Doctor Paracelsus (1959).