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Theophrastus Paracelsus

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Paracelsus, THEOPHRASTUS, celebrated physician and reformer of therapeutics, b. at the Sihlbrücke, near Einsiedeln, in the Canton of Schwyz, November 10, 1493; d. at Salzburg, September 24, 1541. He is known also as Theophrastus von Hohenheim, Eremita (of Einsiedeln), and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. It is now established that the family originally came from Würtemberg, where the noble family of Bombastus was in possession of the ancestral castle of Hohenheim near Stuttgart until 1409. Paracelsus is the Latin form in common use among the German scholars of the time. Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, physician to the monastery of Einsiedeln and father of Theophrastus, changed the family residence to Villach in Carinthia (c. 1502), where at the time of his death (September 8, 1534), he was city physician.

Paracelsus mentions the following as his earliest teachers, his father, Eberhard Paumgartner, Bishop of Lavant, Matthaeus von Scheidt, Bishop of Seckau, and Matthaeus Schacht, Bishop of Freising. He was initiated into the mysteries of alchemy by Joannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Abbot of Sponheim, and a prolonged interval spent in the laboratories of Sigmund Fugger at Schwaz made him familiar with metallurgy. All his life restless and eager for travel, he attended the most important universities of Germany, France, and Italy, and, in 1526, went to Strasburg, where, already a doctor, he joined the guild of surgeons. The same year he was appointed, probably through the influence of Joannes Ecolampadius, the theologian, and Joannes Frobenius, the publisher, to the office of city physician of Basle, with which was connected the privilege of lecturing at the university.

His teaching, as well as his opposition to the prevailing Galeno-Arabic system, the burning of Avicenna‘s writings in a public square, the polemical tone of his discourses, which, contrary to all custom, were delivered in German, his dissensions with the faculty, attacks on the greed of apothecaries, and to a certain extent, also, his success as a practitioner—all drew upon him the hatred of those in authority. In February he fled from Basle to Colmar. A typical vagrant, his subsequent life was spent in continual wandering, surrounded by a troop of adventurers, with the reputation of a charlatan, but all the while observing all things with remarkable zeal, and busied with the composition of his numerous works. In 1529 we find him at Nuremberg, soon afterwards at Beritzhausen and Amberg, in 1531 at St. Gall, later at Innsbruck, in 1534 at Sterzing and Meran, in 1535 at Bad Pfäffers, Augsburg, 1537 at Vienna, Presburg, and Villach, and finally at Salzburg, where he died a natural death and, in accordance with his wish, was buried in the cemetery of St. Sebastian. The present tomb in the porch of St. Sebastian’s Church, was erected by some unknown person in 1752. According to recent research the portrait on the monument is that of the father of Paracelsus. Paracelsus did not join the ranks of the Reformers, evincing, rather, an aversion to any form of religion. The clause in his will, however, giving directions for a requiem Mass would indicate that before his death he regarded himself as a member of the Church.

Paracelsus is a phenomenon in the history of medicine, a genius tardily recognized, who in his impetuosity sought to overturn the old order of things, thereby rousing bitter antagonists. He sought to substitute something better for what seemed to him antiquated and erroneous in therapeutics, thus falling into the mistake of other violent reformers, who, during the process of rebuilding, underestimate the work of their contemporaries. He was not in touch with the humanist movement or with the study of anatomy then zealously pursued, the most prominent factors in reorganization; leaving out of consideration his great services to special departments, he stands alone and misunderstood. His influence was felt specially in Wittenberg, but only in a few schools of Germany, while he was entirely discounted throughout Italy.

He sought the cause of pathological changes, not in the cardinal humors, blood, phlegm, yellow and black gall (humoral pathology), but in the entities, which he divided into ens astrorum (cosmic influences differing with climate and country), ens veneni (toxic matter originating in the food), the cause of contagious diseases, ens naturals et spirituals (defective physical or mental constitution), and ens deals (an affliction sent by Providence). The diseases known as tartaric, especially gout and lithiasas, are caused by the deposit of determinate toxins (tartar), are discovered chiefly by the urine test, and are cured by means of alkalies. Like the followers of Hippocrates he prescribes the observation of nature and dietetic directions, but attaches too great a value to experience (empiricism). In nature all substances have two kinds of influences, helpful (essentia) and harmful (venena), which are separated by means of alchemy. It requires experience to recognize essences as such and to employ them at the proper moment. His aim was to discover a specific remedy (arcanum) for every disease.

It was precisely here, however, that he fell into error, since not infrequently he drew a conclusion as to the availability of certain remedies from purely external signs, e.g., when he taught that the pricking of thistles cures internal inflammation. This untrustworthy “doctrine of signatures” was at a later date developed farther by Rademacher, and to a certain extent also by Hahnemann. Although the theories of Paracelsus as contrasted with the Galeno-Arabic system indicate no advance, inasmuch as they ignore entirely the study of anatomy, still his reputation as a reformer of therapeutics is justified in that he broke new paths in the science. He may be taken as the founder of the modern materia medica, and pioneer of scientific chemistry, since before his time medical science received no assistance from alchemy. To Paracelsus is due the use of mercury for syphilis as well as a number of other metallic remedies, probably a result of his studies in Schwaz, and partly his acquaintance with the quicksilver works in Idria. He was the first to point out the value of mineral waters, especially the Pfäffer water, even attempting to produce it by artificial means. He recognized the tincture of gallnut as a reagent for the iron properties of mineral water. He showed a particular preference for native herbs, from which he obtained “essences” and “tinctures”, the use of which was to replace the curious composite medicines so popular at the time. Regarding him from an ethical standpoint, his noble ideals of the medical profession, his love for the poor, and his piety deserve to be exalted. The perusal of his writings disproves the accusation of drunkenness which had so often been made against him by his enemies.

For the most part Paracelsus dictated his works, in many cases bequeathing the manuscript to friends with the request to have it printed. His name, being well known, was often misappropriated, so that later it became necessary to draw a fixed line between authentic and unauthentic writings. The former are characterized by a simple, direct, intelligible style. Cf. Schubert-Sudhoff, “Paracelsusforschungen” (Frankfort on the Main, 1887-89); Sudhoff, “Bibliographia Paracelsica” (Berlin, 1894); Idem, “Versuch einer Kritik der Echtheit der Paracelsischen Schriften” (Berlin, 1894-99). The best of the collective editions, which, however, includes some unauthentic works, is that of Huser (Basle, 1589-91, 10 vols.; Frankfort, 1603, 3 vols.; Strasburg, 1616). A detailed list of the authentic and unauthentic writings is to be found in Albr. von Haller, “Bibliotheca medicinae practicae”, II (Basle, 1777), 2-12. Among his most important writings may be mentioned: “Opus Paramirum” I, II, reedited by Dr. Franz Strunz (Jena, 1904), which contains the system of Paracelsus; “Drei Bucher von den Franzosen” (syphilis and venereal diseases); “Grosse Wundarznei, fiber das Bad Pfäffers, fiber die Pest in Sterzing”.


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