Paracelsus : The Philosopher’s Stone Made Flesh
Henry M. Pachter, Paracelsus: Magic into Science.
The act is all, the reputation nothing.
Even during his life in the first half of the sixteenth century, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim — better known by the name Paracelsus — enjoyed a checkered reputation. To some he was a wonder healer, the Luther of physicians; to others a sorcerer who called up demons. It is not surprising that he is often confused with a contemporary, Johann Faust, who is reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil. Yet just as alchemy was concerned with separating the pure metal from the dross, history has consolidated the reputation of Paracelsus the scientist from out of the mythology, much of it arcane, that has kept his name alive. Para-celsus means literally beyond (Aulus Cornelius) Celsus, a Roman doctor and encyclopaedist of the first century AD whose work, along with that of Galen and Aristotle, was still used as a standard medical text in the universities of Paracelsus’ time.
From an age of famous men, Carl Jung selects Paracelsus as a ‘true mirror of his century’ (Jacobi, Foreword); and Jacob Bronowski chose him to symbolise that ‘instant in the ascent of man when he steps out of the shadowland of secret and anonymous knowledge into a new system of open and personal discovery.’
Jung’s selection of Paracelsus can be easily understood. To Jung, alchemy ‘is not only the mother of chemistry, but is also the forerunner of our modern psychology of the unconscious. Thus Paracelsus appears as a pioneer not only of chemical medicine but of empirical psychology and psychotherapy.’
Bronowski is more concerned with the pioneer of what is now called iatrochemistry but was called Paracelsian chemistry for two centuries. To Bronowski, Paracelsus was the person who overturned, or at least caused to be questioned, prevailing medical beliefs that were up to two thousand years old.
Thomas Kuhn’s essay ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ defined the word ‘paradigm’ as a body of scientific belief that is ‘sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity.’ It was also ‘simultaneously…open-ended enough to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.’ For Kuhn, a scientific revolution occurred when the prevailing paradigm changed; and initially he considered that the major revolutions in science that had occurred before the twentieth century were — with a single exception, Darwin — all in the domain of the physical sciences.
Later writers, for example Bernard Cohen, have defined other revolutions and acknowledged revolutionaries whose activities, whilst not fostering full-blown revolutions, have contributed in a major way to changing the path of the life sciences. Cohen puts Paracelsus in this category, and points out that one of the first historical references to a revolution in the sense that Kuhn uses the word was made by William Cockburn about Paracelsus in 1728:
The reshaping of Paracelsus’ reputation has much to do with the changed attitudes towards what constitutes invention or discovery — a ‘historiographic revolution in the study of science’ as Kuhn calls it; and much of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is about the redefinition of the history of science and how modern historians now ‘rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage …attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time.’
In the time of Paracelsus medicine was mainly taught and practised according to the theories of Galen (ca 130-200 AD) who had used pigs and monkeys for his lectures on human anatomy; of Avicenna (908-1037), considered the greatest medical authority amongst the Arab scholars who had been responsible for scientific advancement in the Middle Ages; and, rediscovered by the Arabs, of Aristotle (384-322 BC) who held that disease is a result of an imbalance in the four humours — yellow bile or choler, phlegm, blood and black bile or melancholy — which are contained within the body and which could only be treated according to the principle contrary cures contrary. The system had been modified by the Arabs but was still known as the Galenic system and drugs based on it were called Galenicals and were often extended with expensive ingredients that probably had little or no therapeutic effect:
Paracelsus held a different view, believing that disease ‘was local in nature and directly related to bodily malfunctions which were essentially chemical in nature. (Debus) Disease was caused by agents external to the body, the causes were to be found in the mineral world and in the air, and a disease is ‘determined by a specific agent foreign to the body, which takes possession of one of its parts, imposing its own rules on form and function and thereby threatening life.’ (Paget)
What shaped his views? The first influence would have been his doctor father who taught him the rudiments of medicine and whose clientele of miners would make it obvious that much illness was externally caused — that there was, in fact, such a thing as occupational illness was first documented by Paracelsus in his On Miners’ Consumption, published around 1534 but drawing on earlier observations.
He spent time at the mines, working in laboratories where the alchemical aspects of metallurgy were giving way to the commercial and surrounded by the smelters that transformed base metals. ‘Alchemy,’ he observed, ‘is nothing but the art that makes the impure into the pure through fire.’ (Jacobi)
In common with his time, Paracelsus undertook his academic studies in many places. For two years he travelled through Germany. At sixteen he enrolled at Vienna University where he completed his Bachelor’s degree. He went on to Italy, to the University of Ferrara; but the Duke of Ferrara sided with the German Hapsburg Emperor Charles V in his losing war against the King of France, and Paracelsus was forced to flee before completing his Master’s, finding shelter with another Hapsburg army fighting in the south of Italy.
It was here that, as an army surgeon, Paracelsus had his first practical medical experience, and it may have been here that his reputation as a magician began. His observations of other surgeons dressing wounds with ‘cow dung, viper fat, feathers and other unsavoury substances’ in the belief that wounds must suppurate horrified him for he believed that they should be kept clean, that ‘if you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself.’ (Pachter) His beliefs weren’t shared, so he persuaded his fellow practitioners that applying a balm to the weapon that made the wound rather than to the wound itself would be more effective. So successful was this treatment that recipes for ‘Paracelsus’ weapon salve’ were highly prized. It is worth noting that Paracelsus wrote about the need to keep wounds clean in his Great Surgery Book some years before Ambroise Paré began applying antiseptic to wounds and using similar words to Paracelsus.
He continued to wander, visiting universities, working in mines, as an army surgeon and as a healer. It was a seven year journey that took him to three continents and from which he brought back, in addition to knowledge and experience, an enormous sword whose pommel was full of what was popularly considered to be the elixir of life but which looked like mice droppings and to which Paracelsus gave the name laudanum.
Being on the wrong side of another uprising forced him onto the road again, improving his knowledge of metallurgy and medicine, supporting himself by selling his drugs and doctoring. His was empirical medicine, based on observations and experience and extended with remedies from folklore and local healers. But it was occasionally empirical in a later definition of the word — quackery — for Paracelsus was not above peddling charms and potions.
His treatments had sufficient success for him to be called to Basle in 1527 to treat Johann Frobenius, famous as the printer of Erasmus’ works, who had an infected leg which the local doctors were proposing to amputate. Paracelsus came, saved the leg, ‘and effected a cure which echoed through Europe.’ (Bronowski). Erasmus was effusive in his thanks to Paracelsus in a letter of 1527:
This success was enough to gain Paracelsus a professorship at the University of Basle and the position of Municipal Doctor. However, instead of making use of a position where he had ‘an opportunity, that was never to occur again, to teach and to carry out the reform of medicine in an official capacity… he wasted it.’ (Pachter) He neglected the courtesy calls, did not register with the University, failed to present his credentials. Instead, he published a program for his students in which he stated:
Less than three weeks later he publicly burned the medical textbook of the time, Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, in the Midsummer Night’s bonfire. Within a year he had to flee Basle at night before the police could arrest him on a warrant served by the municipal council.
From Basle he went to Nuremberg and more controversy. Challenged to a debate he declined, instead asking to be sent a patient who was considered incurable, preferably one suffering from syphilis which was sweeping Europe after its probable introduction by sailors returning from the West Indies. He was placed in charge of the fifteen patients currently in the ‘Lepers’ Hospital’ where all those with horrific skin diseases — syphilis and elephantiasis as well as leprosy — were isolated. According to the hospital archives he cured nine of the fifteen; and since there is still no cure for leprosy it must be assumed that some of those he rid of their symptoms were syphilitics.
His Essay on the French Disease, a prelude to an even more comprehensive study, was prepared for publication; but the issuing of the first of its three chapters plunged Paracelsus into even more controversy. In addition to thoroughly documenting the clinical aspects of the disease, he advocated the use of sulphur baths and mercury-based ointments to ease the symptoms and the suffering. Mercury had already been used, both internally and externally. It was an extremely painful cure that burned the ulcers away but took the flesh with it; and even when it removed the symptoms it caused the death of the patients from mercury poisoning.
What Paracelsus proposed was that a measured dose of a carefully prepared mercurial compound be introduced into the body in a manner that was biochemically sound — similar to his prescription of iron for ‘poverty of the blood’ where the iron was administered in the form of plants containing it rather than the metal itself. But the current cure for syphilis was guaiac wood, imported from the West Indies. It had been in general use as a cure for ulcers, and now its importation and resale had become so profitable that the price for obtaining a monopoly in it had been sufficient to finance the election campaign of Charles V to the throne of the Hapsburg Emperor some years before.
The commercial interests that controlled the guaiac trade did not control that in mercury, but they owned or were owed favours by the major publishers of the time. Publication of the last two chapters of Paracelsus’ Essay were stopped, though an underground issue later appeared, badly typeset and unable to be proofread by Paracelsus who was in hiding. Additionally, influential doctors were cut in on the profits from guaiac, and it was to the ‘independent judgement’ of a panel headed by one of these that the book was submitted to see if it had merit. The reply that came back was that Paracelsus was neither a doctor nor a physician, that he was unqualified to write on medical matters, that the book had no merit.
It was, in a sense, the end of Paracelsus. He left Nuremberg, wandered, begged, was run out of more towns. He wrote, at first on medical matters including some on mental health — ‘invisible disease’ — that may justify Jung’s comments; but then, as he became converted to a mysticism that although Christian was at odds with both Catholic and Lutheran beliefs, he moved on to more metaphysical subjects. His ideas on chemistry and medicine gradually achieved a respectability and acceptance, but he had gone beyond them into theology, and did not wish to return.
For the twenty years after his death in 1541, Paracelsus appeared forgotten and his disciples seemed to have moved into other fields. In 1543 Oporinus, who had acted as Paracelsus’ secretary in Basle, published the de Fabrica of Vesalius which reshaped the study of anatomy. In the same year another disciple oversaw the publication of Copernicus’ The Revolution of Heavenly Orbs.
That chemical medicine did continue to take hold is evidenced by the proscriptions issued against it and the work of Paracelsus. Yet it survived despite itself. The widespread publishing of Paracelsus’ writing began in the latter half of the sixteenth century, although some of it was undoubtedly the work of the followers not the founder; and much of what was practised in the name of Paracelsus was quackery. But Paracelsus had effectively destroyed the orthodox view of medicine, and the anatomical drawings of Vesalius and William Harvey’s work on the circulation of blood confirmed the passing of Galen.
Paracelsus and his followers caused the pharmacopoeia to be rewritten. Not satisfied with the way traditional medicine treated disease by methods such as sweating or bloodletting or purging the patient, he sought to find a specific cure for each disease, to find the virtue of substances — that is, the specific element within them that might effect a cure; whether it had to be distilled or refined out or else found naturally, how they should be introduced into the body and what was the dosage necessary for it to be efficacious. He believed that every product manufactured through the chemical art should be included in the pharmacopoeia and that these preparations should totally replace the galenicals. (‘The Reformation’) This did come about, but due to the efforts of those who came after him. The only recipe of Paracelsus still in use is a zinc ointment.
The alchemists believed that the human body and the natural world were both composed of the same two principles, mercury which symbolised everything dense and permanent and sulphur which represented everything inflammable and impermanent. Paracelsus introduced ‘salt’ as a third substance, the ashes left after the process of combustion.
To him, sulphur represented the gaseous and combustible products, mercury the fluid, and salt stood for the solid elements. Through these tria prima he sought to identify why some chemicals reacted with others, why matter decayed or recovered, why certain substances had curative powers at one level or in one form yet were fatal at others, to find answers to questions he didn’t know how to ask.
Paracelsus has contributed little concrete to what, from the perspective of the past two centuries, can be described as ‘scientific knowledge.’ It is those who came after him, whether under the Paracelsian banner with their wild experiments and claims or the more formalised iatrochemists from van Helmont on who have charted the lands beyond the walls that he knocked down.
Paracelsus set out his agenda in four words. Make medicine, not gold.
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Cohen, I Bernard. Revolution in Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap / Harvard UP, 1985.
Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy. Vol 1. New York: Science History Publications; 1977.
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Kuhn, Thomas S. ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.’ International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science. 2nd ed. Vol 2, No 2. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.
Pachter, Henry M. Paracelsus: Magic into Science. New York: Collier, 1961.
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‘The Reformation, 1520-59.’ New Cambridge Modern History. Part II. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.