Paracelsus 1493–1541 German-Swiss Physician and Reformer
Philippus von Hohenhiem, known by the adopted name Paracelsus, helped to establish the role of chemistry in medicine. Although his unusual religious views influenced few people, his ideas on how to treat illness transformed the practice of medicine.
Born in a Swiss village, Paracelsus grew up in Carinthia, now part of southern Austria. Details about his education are unclear; he claimed that his father, a physician, had tutored him. It is unlikely that he ever received a formal medical degree. His writings reveal a knowledge of mysticism*, alchemy*, and folk medicine. As an adult Paracelsus became one of many religious thinkers and reformers who wandered Europe during a time of social, religious, and intellectual turmoil. He narrowly escaped trial for supporting the rebels in the Peasants' War, an uprising in central Germany during the 1520s. Paracelsus also wrote many works on theology*. In some of these pieces he argued that the nature of God was fourfold, containing not only the traditional Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also a female creative force.
The medical ideas of Paracelsus differed sharply from those of physicians trained in the universities of Europe. Paracelsus denied the basic principles of Renaissance medicine as put forth by ancient Greek physicians such as Galen. In particular, he disputed the theory of humors, which held that the body contained four fluids and that a balance among them produced good health. His dislike of standard practices once led Paracelsus to throw an expensive medical textbook onto a bonfire. This stunt enraged the medical authorities, as did his attacks on their methods.
Although he had many odd ideas about human anatomy, Paracelsus offered a new approach to the treatment of illness. It focused on the use of powerful drugs tailored to specific ailments. Paracelsus made many of these drugs by refining poisonous minerals and plants. He also used chemical processes that were unfamiliar to most physicians. Such novel practices made him many enemies, but they also earned him a reputation as a pioneer of medical chemistry.
Because Paracelsus led a wandering life and lacked formal training, most scholars of his time ignored his work. In the two generations after his death, however, medical scholars paid greater attention to his ideas. They published and wrote commentaries on his works. His ideas spread, and the concepts and drugs developed by Paracelsus became the basis of chemical medicine. By the 1600s traditional physicians began to accept his methods, and soon the idea of treatment based on chemistry became part of a new approach to medicine.
- * mysticism
belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine
- * alchemy
early science that sought to explain the nature of matter and to transform base metals, such as lead, into gold
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion