Friday 23 May 2014

Men of Yore: Paracelsus

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 


The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus was one of the most influential medical scientists in early modern Europe.

His real name was Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim and he was the son of a doctor. After a brief period as a medical student in Italy, he travelled all over Europe and beyond as a military surgeon with the Venetian army, visiting Russia, Arabia and Egypt along the way. Mixing with people from many cultures, he gained considerable knowledge of several folk medicine traditions. ‘I have not been ashamed’, he wrote, ‘to learn from tramps, butchers and barbers.’ These influences led him to reject much of university-taught medicine.

He changed his name to Paracelsus (‘equal to Celsus’) to indicate that he wanted to rival ancient medical authorities such as Galen and Celsus. He rejected Galen’s claim that health and disease were controlled by the four humours and told doctors to study nature and develop personal experience through experiment. On the other hand, he continued to subscribe to all kinds of folk beliefs such as gnomes, spirits and fairies.

Paracelsus also had some training in alchemy, from which he picked up the principle that metals were the key elements which made up the universe, and that they were subject to control by God, the ‘great magician’ who created nature.

Paracelsus argued that the body was a chemical system which had to be balanced not only internally, but which also had to be in harmony with its environment. On the basis of this idea, Paracelsus introduced new chemical substances into medicine, for instance the use of the metal mercury for the treatment of syphilis.

In 1526 he was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Paracelsus overthrew convention by publicly burning the books of Ibn Sina and Galen. He also invited ordinary citizens to his lectures, which he gave wearing an alchemist’s leather apron rather than an academic gown. His new methods were very controversial, and in 1538 he was exiled from Basel. He died in 1541 in Austria.

Paracelsus' defining characteristic is that he valued experimentation above unquestioned tradition.  He didn't believe that that cultural norms of the medical community were beyond raproach, regardless of who established those norms or how long they had been around.  Indeed he didn't hold the medical establishment as a whole in particularly high regard as is evidenced by him burning books in public.  Nor did he think much of the medical colleges or the people who inhabited them:
He wrote later that he wondered how “the high colleges managed to produce so many high asses,” a typical Paracelsian jibe.
The cynics among you might think "Colleges produced asses in the medieval period?  How little things have changed!"  Whatever you may think, for me personally reading Paracelus' comments cause me to look at modern-day doctors (or any other 'experts' for that matter) and take them down from the alter where I considered them beyond raproach.  Then look at them more closely, scrutinise them, doubt them, and on the whole begin to see them as fallible people rather than infallible supermen.  People who make mistakes.  People who are prone to ego-ism.  People who are prone to value their opinion above that of the 'uneducated commoner'.  People who don't want to admit that they are sometimes wrong.  A kind of levelling if you like.  Seeing experts as humans rather than as supermen, that's what men like Paracelsus and Thomas Wakley have made me learn.

Another interesting characteristic about Paracelsus is that he wandered widely.  He travelled all over Europe learning a great deal from everywhere that he visited and everyone whom he met.  He learnt from the rich and the poor, the esteemed and the down-trodden.  He learnt from people who had hands on experience with the human body rather than self-professed experts who studied books instead of studying the people that they were supposed to be treating.  That shows a personal willingness to try out new things, to experiment, not to walk down the same beaten path.  This point, that being well travelled causes men to become more knowledgeable of the world, is summed up well in the Havamal in verse and 18:
Verse 18
The one who is mindful and aware,
who far away travels,
and ‘liftsmuch for travelling,
what state of mind
leads such one of the men
who is aware of mindfulness.
Whatever your level of education or knowledge of the medical world, you should always remember that doctors and surgeons and all medical professionals are fallible human beings.  They may be able to bamboozle you with fancy sounding phrases, name disesases in latin, know all sorts of drugs and technologies, and have a well educated appearance, but at the end of the day they are human and can still make mistakes.  Big ones.  Science is a open to change; Paracelsus showed us that hundreds of years ago, and Thomas Wakley did again two hundred years ago.  Doctors, scientists, and other experts are not above you.  They are not superior to you.  They are only helpers or guides.  Value yourself first, and then put others on that same level as you.  That way you won't fall for the mistake of over-valuing fallible human beings at the expense of yourself or the truth.



  1. The term 'bombastic' comes from this guys name.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. @ Anonymous, so it is! A heavy drinker with two helpings of ego and three of intelligence, he must've been a tough character to live with!

    Here's the relevant wikipedia entry on the origins of 'Bombast':

    Many books mentioning Paracelsus also cite him as the origin of the word "bombastic" to describe his often arrogant speaking style, which the following passage illustrates:

    I am Theophrastus, and greater than those to whom you liken me; I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum and I can prove to you what you cannot prove...I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine...As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?...Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.

    —Paracelsus, Selected Writings [35]

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word "bombastic" is "bombast", an old term for cotton stuffing, rather than a play on Paracelsus's middle name, Bombastus.

  4. Aw - once again, reality sucks.