Chapter 17. Sixteenth Century part 4. Paracelsus

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Sixteenth Century Einseideln, Switzerland, Paracelsus 1493-1541

Like the section in the chapter on fasting on Dr. Linda Hazzard, this section on Paracelsus has taken me a great deal longer than I expected. Paracelsus is an important figure. Myths and legends of miraculous cures abounded during his lifetime and increased after his death. After him, around half of all physicians in Europe and then America, called themselves Paracelsians. (I believe that they had a poor undestanding of Paracelsus’ medicine and thus I refer to them in my time-line as “neo-Paracelsians”.)
No women ever featured in Paracelus’ life. (His mother was thought to suffer from manic depression , and it is thought, committed suicide when he was nine.) It is fairly sure that Paracelsus suffered from rickets as a child. He may have been impotent, possibly from rickets or another childhood illness. He took pride in being chaste and thought that all doctors should follow his example.

Paracelsus’s obsessions

At first sight, a lot of Paracelsus’ pre-occupations have nothing to do with medicine. He was an enthusiastic , even obsessive, alchemist and a student of the Cabbala (the Jewish mystical texts) and astrology (a normal part of medicine at that time), and magic. He was also deeply religious and wrote many theological treatises, most of which were unpublished in his lifetime. During his lifetime, the era of the humanists, German speaking lands and Switzerland were torn with the strife and ferment of the Reformation and peasant revolts. He was a contemporary of Luther, and Swingli, the Swiss Luther, as well as the lunatic fringe: the Anabaptists. Paracelsus’ religious beliefs were idiosyncratic and personal (they seem quite rational and modern now). He never broke with the Catholic church (although his beliefs would have been considered heretical) but sympathised with the reformation and even the Anabaptists. He was endlessly curious about the world and a very deep thinker. He was struggling to find universal theories which would explain the world in a pre-scientific society when the only chemistry was alchemy, and astrology, magic and the occult were the only physics. In medicine, he believed that experience was paramount and throughout his life, eagerly sought out folk remedies from many different countries. Assessing Paracelus’ medicine is difficult for several reasons:

  1. Many of his insights about how the body worked and also his remedies were inspired by alchemy and his writings on alchemy are hard to fathom as he often uses deliberately obscure terms which would make sense only to contemporary fellow adepts.
  2. Paracelsus’ general theories are full of his own invented neologisms based on Latin or Greek which Paracelsus does not bother to explain. Furthermore these terms are often inconsistent between one treatise and another.
  3. As was customary at the time, Paracelsus’ remedies were closely guarded trade secrets and he took most of them to his grave.

 Paracelsus – a poster boy for the Nazis?

Paracelsus scholarship, particularly in German speaking lands, has continued from about 20 years after his death to the present and many of the scholars saw Paracelsus through the prism of the preoccupations of their own era. For example, he became a poster boy for the Nazis who would quote some disobliging references to Jews in his writings and who saw him as the father of a “German medicine”. But Paracelsus quarrelled with just about everyone throughout his life and disparaging remarks, particularly about other doctors, who he called “bescheissers” (the Jiddish/American word “shyster” with a similar origin in the German word for shit, is the closest translation I can think of), are not hard to find in his writings, many of them still unpublished and which the University of Zurich Paracelsus Project estimates will eventually fill 30 large volumes. Besides this, Paracelsus was a scholar and adept of the Jewish Cabalah, so there is no real evidence that he was anti semitic. What Pachter regards as the “authoritative biography” of Paracelsus was written in 1936 by the Leipzig professor of the History of Medicine: Karl Sudhoff . Sudhoff joined the Nazi party in 1933 (died 1938).

The “patron saint of alternative medicine”

Most modern assessments of Paracelsus’ medicine have looked through the prism of orthodox medicine (Pachter) or the history of science (Ball) and this is the main reason why I have spent so long (relatively) on Paracelsus. Also, he has lately become something of a patron saint of “alternative medicine” with several alternative cancer clinics called Paracelsus Clinic in Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria . I have tried therefore, to wade through the medieval dross of superstition, magic and astrology to find out whether this latest image of Paracelsus is justified and whether there really are some holistic pearls to find. I think I have found one or two.

A lifelong rebel and firebrand

Born Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, aka Theophrastus, physician, surgeon, alchemist, botanist, astrologer, theologian, occultist. Paracelsus was a lifelong rebel and firebrand and a mixture of genius and quack, thin skinned, arrogant, boastful and tactless. It is generally thought that Parcelsus named himself thus to mean “greater than Celsus” the Roman scholar (and possible physician) whose work had just been discovered but according to the University of Zurich it may just be a latinisation of his surname, meaning: “one living at a higher place” and it was usual in those days for doctors (and humanists) to latinise their surname. Paracelsus was fond of double meanings and I think both explanations probably apply. But my personal opinion is that the reference to the Roman Celsus, rather than being a boast, was meant as a tribute to Cornelius Celsus, Paracelsus saying that the pre-Gallenist Celsus with his measured review of all the schools of Greek medicine (Rationalists, Methodics, Empiricists etc) was the one he would follow and take further.

“The medical Luther”

Paracelsus was a contemporary of Martin Luther and was called the medical Luther because he believed that medicine should be taught in the vernacular and not in Latin as was usual at the time. (Most of his writings were nevertheless in Latin). He rejected the humoral theories of Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna – but replaced them with his own alchemy inspired theory that the body is composed of three elements, salts (in the wider, chemical sense of salts), sulphur and mercury.

Paracelsus’s education

His father, a country doctor, was the illegitimate offspring of a Swabian aristocrat who had fallen on hard times. Paracelsus’ father carried out alchemical experiments at home. After the death of his mother, Paracelsus and his father moved to Villach, Austria, a centre rich in metal ores where many different metals were mined and refined. The mines were owned by the Fuggers, Europe’s wealthiest merchants at that time. Paracelsus’ father knew enough about metalurgy to be employed as a teacher at the Fuggers owned mining school. It’s not clear (to me at least) exactly under what circumstances Paracelsus learned metalurgy (which at that time shaded into alchemy) but apparently he had a grounding in the subject when in 1507 at the age of fourteen he left home and visited several universities in Germany (at that time it was common for students to go from one university to another, in search of the best teachers).

Wandering from one University to another

As we have already seen, in the middle ages, to qualify as a doctor one needed to study for 3 years for a bachelor of arts. Then came two years of studying Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna and anatomy for a bachelors degree in medicine and a further two years of study to become a doctor. Paracelsus visited universities at Tübingen, Heildelberg, Treves, Mainz, Cologne, Freiburg, Vienna, Leipzig and Erfurt in search of a liberal education. This pattern of wandering from one place to another set the pattern for the whole of Parcelsus’ life. He would never settle in one place. Paracelus was not exceptional in being a wandering doctor. There were many such contemporaries. Like Paracelsus, many had had to cut short their medical studies for one reason or another. Some experimented with new, chemical drugs. They were called “empiricals” which harks back to the dissenters in ancient Alexandria who pointed out that the new anatomy studies had not produced any remedies and railed against the “rationalists” and anatomists.

Did Paracelsus ever complete his studies to become a Doctor?

Parcelsus studied for a doctoral degree in medicine at Ferrara in northern Italy from 1512 to 1515. It is not clear whether Paracelsus ever took his final examination to qualify as a doctor and it is still argued over by pro and anti Paracelsians to this day. At that time, Italy was the most war torn country in a war torn Europe with constant shifts in allegiances between the Italian city republics and foreign powers and constant sieges and battles.

The wandering military surgeon

Paracelsus travelled to Naples where he served as a military surgeon in the army of Charles I of Spain who had invaded Naples. Between 1517 and 1523 when he returned to visit his father in Villach, Paracelsus travelled thousands of miles, all over Europe, and even into north Africa, working as a military surgeon when he encountered military conflicts, which was often. It seems that he was on a constant quest for medical knowledge not taught in the medical schools of the universities. (Through his father he would already be an expert on the medicinal properties of alpine herbs of course and the fact that his Doctor father named him after the Greek philosopher whose books on botany and medicinal herbs had just been rediscovered, is telling, in my opinion). He wrote:

“Wherever I went I eagerly and diligently investigated and sought after the tested and reliable arts of medicine. I went not only to the doctors but also to barbers, bathkeepers, learned physicians, women, and magicians who pursue the art of healing. I went to alchemists, to monasteries, to noble and common folk, to the experts and the simple.” (Ball)


“The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveller.…Knowledge is experience.”


“I studied at the universities of Germany, Italy and France, seeking to discover the foundations of medicine. However, I did not content myself with their teachings and writings and books, but continued my travels to Granada and Lisbon, through Spain and England, through Brandenburg, Prussia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Wallachia, Transylvania, Croatia, the Wendian Mark and yet other countries which there is no need to mention here.” (Ball)

My speculation about Paracelsus's skill as a linguist
I wonder how Paracelsus was able to converse with the old wives, gypsies, sorcerers etc. in the many countries that he visited? His father was Swabian (South West Germany), he was brought up in German speaking Switzerland and his adolescence was spent in Austria.  Each of those areas would have had distinct but similar southern German (Allemanic) dialects. Paracelsus also studied in various different German universities. So Paracelsus would have become used to dealing with various German dialects, which was probably useful for understanding and even conversing in other Germanic languages besides German. For example today, the Swiss German dialect is closer to Dutch than high German is.  Although it is thought that Paracelsus’ Latin was rather coarse, indeed he had to employ Oporinus to translate into the best Latin for him and help him prepare his lectures in Basle, he nevertheless had years of humanistic education which would have been mainly in Latin with some Greek. He spent 3 years in Ferrara in Italy so his Italian must have been fairly fluent by the time he left there. He spent some time as a surgeon with Spanish armies in Naples and elsewhere. His Latin and Italian would have enabled him to pick up the basics of Spanish and then Portuguese fairly easily. So my guess is that he would have had an ever increasing linguistic stock which would enable him to pick up the rudiments of other languages and he would have been able to converse with other physicians, and humanists like Erasmus, in the lingua franca of European scholarship: Latin.


What did he learn from the Tartars?

Of particular interest, in my opinion, is that on these travels, Paracelsus was captured by Tartars in a raid on Moscow and taken captive and through Ukraine to the Crimea. In return for demonstrating his skills and surgery to his captors, he may have learned the secrets of Tartar shamanistic and herbal medicine which he thought of immense value. (Is this where he first observed and understood the power of suggestion?) He wrote:

“Wonderful things happen in this world when a man of Swabia brings physic and experiment right up to the Tartars”.

The so called “Tartars” of that time were in actual fact the remnants of the Mongol “Golden Horde” which disintegrated into separate Khanates in the late 14th century, so Paracelsus’ Tartars would no doubt have transmitted to him medicinal knowledge gleaned from the whole Mongol empire, including Chinese and Tibetan medicine.

Paracelsus sets up a medical practice in Salzburg

After his return home to Villach, in 1524 Parcelsus went to Salzburg where he set up a medical practice. Soon after he arrived, there was a peasant’s revolt in the city. With the peasants still in control, Parcelsus left Salzburg, apparently in great haste. The reason for his hurried departure is not clear.

The Ingolstadt inn-keeper’s daughter legend

Paracelsus travelled 90 miles west to Munich and then 50 miles north to Ingolstadt. An incident at Ingolstadt becomes part of the Paracelsus legend. It is recounted both by Pachter in “Paracelsus – magic into science” and Philip Ball in “The Devil’s Doctor”. Theophrastus lodges at an Inn where the inn-keeper’s 23 year old daughter has been paralysed since birth. He prepares a cure with the colourful name of “Azoth of the Red Lion”. A grain of this was dissolved in red wine and given to the patient who was told to sleep and work up a heavy sweat. While Paracelsus was having dinner with the family, the girl walked in and threw herself at his feet, thanking him for “his wonderful cure”.

Is the story true?

This story comes from an alchemist’s almanac published one hundred and fifty years after the event, according to Pachter. The story is typical of the Paracelsus myth and raises a number of questions. Is it true? Even if she had been healed, would she have been able to walk from one room to another after 23 years without the use of her legs? Azoth of the Red Lion was mercury, distilled from mercury oxide. It’s hard to imagine a grain of this in red wine curing paralysis. Patchter wonders if the cure had something to do with hypnosis. It seems likely that suggestion was certainly involved if the account has any basis in fact. (Was this something Parcelsus learned from the Tartar shamans?)

The alchemical quest to make Gold

Paracelsus then moves on to Neuburg where the Duke of Bavaria owns a castle. The Duke’s book-keeper Hans Kilian is also employed as an alchemist attempting to make gold as the duke is on his uppers. Paracelsus and Kilian are soon hard at work together in Kilian’s alchemical laboratory and Paracelsus spent several months there. Kilian archived Paracelsus’ alchemical writings and they have been preserved at the castle.

Wandering in southern Germany

After Neuburg, Paracelsus wanders in southern Germany. He is summoned to the court of the Margrave (ruler), Philip I who had a diarrhoeal illness. Philip was already surrounded by physicians and Paracelsus, in typical style, was very vocal in his disdain for their efforts. The cure took some time, as Paracelsus expected, and with court doctors intriguing against him, saying that he was using the remedy they themselves recommended, Philip became impatient and dismissed Paracelsus without paying his fee. Paracelsus was furious and later called Philip a cheat. According to Pachter , Paracelsus’ treatment of the Margrave was to purge instead of fighting contrary with contrary as the Galenist court doctors would have done – treating diarrhea with constipating agents. The purge for these cases became the standard treatment in following centuries.

What was causing the diarrhea?

I wonder what was causing the diarrhea? If it was caused by a parasitic infection like giardiasis, I guess purging might  be effective. Still not admitted by orthodox medicine; but for a modern day naturopathic physician – the first suspects would be gluten and/or dairy.  Is there any evidence that Paracelsus would have prescribed a gluten and/or dairy free diet? Pachter was an American professor of German origin so would be able to read Paracelsus and Paracelsus German scholars in the original and must therefore be fairly reliable. However, his book was written in 1952 so he would have been seeing Paracelsus through the prism of the orthodox medicine of the time. Paracelus does say in his book on “tararic diseases” : “There are refuse materials in the body which are neither faeces in the ordinary sense nor subject to incorporation in man. They cannot be broken down, yet they are not man and they remain in man. Now there are such diseases which are caused by this refuse and vary according to the degree of separation and the location of the refuse. These diseases are stone and sand, glue and mud… These four are four types of refuse from food. They are all known as tartar..” and ….“It is in the vegetables like barley and peas which you can deduce from the mucus they produce and their thick texture. All kinds of food with this mucus lead to stone in the body. Milk products, meat, and fish have sand in them and this becomes tartar.”

Were some of Paracelsus’s miracle cures simple dietary interventions?

So Paracelsus had an intuitive understanding that was incredibly close to Seignalet (although without Seignalet’s detailed scientific explanation of the mechanisms, obviously.) At first sight the “stone, sand, glue and mud” sound like nonsense. By “stone” he must mean gall stones, kidney stones and bladder stones, so no problem there. The “sand” sounds like it would be an irritant and inflame, so this sounds very much like Seignalet’s idea of the zeno-immune inflammation in so called auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and the “glue and mud” sound incredibly like Seignalet’s “clogging diseases” (maladies d’encrassage) like osteo-arthritis and “diseases of elimination” like asthma and eczema. So if the purging did not cure the diarrhoea, would Paracelsus have then prescribed a largely vegetarian diet, excluding barley, (and possibly wheat in the case of upper classes and nobility) milk, meat and fish ?

Did Paracelsus  know of Eristratus through reading Celsus?

The second century Alexandrian Greek physician and anatomist Eristratus treated diseases with a simple vegetarian diet so there would be a precedent. What about wheat? Would Paracelsus have put this in the same bracket as barley? Barley in medieval Germany was a staple of the lower classes and the nobility were more likely to eat wheat. According to Seignalet, it is not the actual meat and fish that are problematic but rather the fact of cooking them at high temperatures. So a purely vegetarian diet would almost certainly have cured the diarrhoea if it was caused by diet (Seignalet’s first attempt at a treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis for example, consisted of a fast followed by a vegetarian diet). Would Paracelsus have prescribed this? I suspect he might have although I can find no firm indications for this,  (Oporinus says that Paracelsus encouraged his patients to eat, even those with ulcers. Was this the influence of Asclepiades through the writings of Celsus?) but this may be simply because earlier historians would not have been looking out for this in his writings.

The cure was the diagnosis

Could it be that Paracelus’ miraculous cures were at least in part due to a Seignalet type of dietary intervention? Paracelsus’ book on “tartaric diseases” is in Latin so I can’t read it and I have not been able to find a translation. There is also the fact, usual for the times, that Paracelsus’ remedies and prescriptions were closely guarded trade secrets. Noteworthy is the fact that Paracelsus regarded remedies as a form of diagnosis in themselves with the disease in question being defined by the remedy that cured it.  A very sensible method in my view, in an era of few diagnostic tools . So Paracelsus would have recognised that quite different diseases have similar symptoms and proceeded to try out remedies in a process of elimination in order to find the correct one and thus identify the disease.

Forced out of Tübingen by the orthdox docs

Paracelsus then travelled 85 miles south east to Tübingen, where he set up as a physician but was forced out by the university physicians who denounced his unorthodox methods.

Freiburg is a repeat of  Tübingen

He then travelled 100 miles north west to the next big town: Freiburg, but a similar thing happened there. Theophrastus then made a study of the waters in various spa towns in south west Germany, before going to Strasbourg in 1526 where he purchased rights of citizenship and joined the guild of millers and corn merchants, who admitted physicians and surgeons. Paracelsus was challenged to a disputation by a Strasbourg surgeon, Vendelinus Hock. The subject was anatomy, a subject in which Paracelsus did not excel. Also, he was prone to stuttering. The result was a humiliating defeat.

He finds glory in Basle with another legendary cure

Paracelsus then received a summons to Basle, 90 miles south along the Rhine. The famous publisher and humanist Johann Froben had a leg infection which it seemed no doctor was able to cure. (Was this a diabetic ulcer I wonder?) The pain was so great that amputation was being considered. Paracelsus stayed in Froben’s house and cured the leg problem. At that time, in Switzerland as in Germany, the reformation was under way and the town council was made up of protestant reformers while the University faculty was made up largely of catholic traditionalists. One of the medical faculty professors, Dr. Wonecker, was paid by the town council as he was also the municipal doctor. When he was dismissed by the town council for bad mouthing the reformation, there was mounting opposition to his dismissal from the Catholics.

Professor of medicine at Basle – the crowning glory!

Paracelsus was sympathetic to the reformation and even to the lunatic fringe of the reformation, the Anabaptists. He had never repudiated Catholicism however, (he had his own idiosyncratic theological, fairly heretical views) and so was hired by the town council to replace Wonecker as a compromise candidate. Paracelsus was never accepted by the medical faculty and had to use a lecture hall outside the University for his lectures. An indication of Paracelsus’ reputation at that time was the fact that in the year before Paracelsus’ appointment, 8 medical students had registered and the year of Paracelsus’ appointment there were 30.

Lectures on surgery in German instead of Latin

Paracelsus gave lectures on surgery in German. To the disgust of the faculty, non students, including barber surgeons, were admitted. The medical lectures were given in a Latin version that Oporinus helped Paracelsus prepare. At the age of 32, Parcelsus was at the height of his career. Then, in a famous incident, during the traditional student revelries of St. John’s Day in June, Paracelus threw the collected works of Avicenna on to the bonfire.

As usual things start to unravel

From there, things started to unravel. Part of Paracelsus’ duties as municipal doctor was to supervise the town’s pharmacies and his heavy handed policing of the pharmacies led to increasing friction. Neither tact nor diplomacy were Paracelsus strong points and the town council were starting to tire of Paracelsus’ demands for their support. One day a satirical poem in mock Latin was nailed to the entrance of the lecture hall. The poem purports to be a letter from Galen’s ghost, speaking from hell and taking Paracelsus to task for dragging his name through the mud and pouring scorn on Paracelsus’ “mad alchemical vapourings”. In an obscene  play on words, Theophrastus is called instead, “Cacophrastus”. A sense of humour was also not one of Paracelsus’ strong points and this insult sent him straight off at the deep end, resulting in a letter sent to the town council demanding that they immediately find and punish the offender.

The Cachophrastus tag sticks plus a new imbroglio

The Cacophrastus tag stuck for quite a while and Paracelsus never got over it. During the summer recess, Paracelsus went to Zurich to appeal to the leaders of the Swiss reformation. During this time, Froben had gone to the book fair in Frankfurt and died there of a stroke, depriving Paracelsus of his strongest supporter in Basle. The faculty doctors obtained an order from the town council to investigate the causes of Froben’s death. This might have led to an indictment of Paracelsus for murder by negligence. Then a church canon claimed to have an incurable disease and offered 100 guilders for a cure. After Paracelsus cured him in three days with some of his famous laudanum, the Canon gave him six guilders which he thought sufficed for so little work. Paracelsus sued and lost. He then authored an anonymous pamphlet attacking the corruption of the clergy and the magistrates. It was obvious to everyone who had written the pamphlet. Tipped off that his arrest was imminent, Paracelsus had to flee in the middle of the night.

More wandering –  news of events in Basle always preceding him

Paracelsus first escaped 20 miles north up the Rhine to Neuneburg and then a further 30 miles north to Colmar in Alsace to stay with his friend Dr. Fries. The town authorities granted a temporary permit to stay and Oporinus rejoined his master. News of the events in Basle had reached Colmar and the permit was not extended and so Paracelsus moved another 150 miles north east to Esslingen near Stuttgart where the Hohenheims had a house. We do not know why Paracelsus had to leave Esslingen but he was soon on his way to Nuremberg, another 140 miles north east. Nuremberg at that time was a stronghold of the reformation. Paracelsus’ reputation preceeded him and everyone knew about the events in Basle, including the burning of Avicenna’s works. The doctors of Nuremberg proposed a debate but Paracelsus suggested that they instead refer him to a patient whom they deemed incurable, preferably with syphilis.

Paracelsus cures 9 out of 15 lepers – another triumph!

Outside the town was a “leper hospital” where people with terrible skin diseases like leprosy and syphilis were quarantined. Paracelsus was put in charge of the hospital. To the amazement of everyone, Paracelsus “cured” 9 out of the 15 inmates. Leprosy was still considered incurable in 1952 when Pachter wrote his book so he assumes that Parcelsus alleviated the symptoms of some syphilitics. Paracelsus, not content with his victory, then very publicly and vocally denounced the doctors for cheating the public. He then went on to attack Lutheran orthodoxy. Not a very politically astute move as Nuremberg was a stronghold of Lutheranism but then Paracelsus always told it as he saw it and damn the consequences.

Paracelsus comes up against the Rockefellers of the day – the Fugers

Paracelsus then brought out a pamphlet on syphilis, titled “Three Chapters on the French Diseases”, dated 1529, it appeared in 1530. Paracelsus was up against powerful vested interests who were determined to prevent publication. Syphilis at that time was a new disease, just 30 years old. It was thought to have been brought to Europe from the West Indies by Spanish sailors and guaiac wood, also from the West Indies, was the first form of treatment for it. A later treatment was mercury. Paracelsus thought that guaiac wood was useless and also denounced doctors who made syphilitic patients ingest huge quantities of pure mercury. Paracelsus’ treatment consisted of a balm made from very dilute mercuric oxide and treatment with sulphur baths. The Fuggers in Augsburg in southern Germany were at that time the pre-eminent European merchant banking family and fabulously rich, the successors to the Medici, many of whose assets they had taken over. They had been granted a monopoly on the importation of guaiac wood and at the time of Paracelsus’ pamphlet had no investments in mercury.

Medicine’s “revolving door’  in Nuremberg – plus ça change!

Permission was needed from the Nuremberg authorities for any publications and after the first chapter was published in 1529, the other two chapters were banned. Paracelsus persuaded the publisher to print them in an “unauthorized” version. Paracelsus had to go into hiding in Beratzhausen, a small town, 55 miles south east of Nuremberg. From Beratzhausen, he sent a larger treatise on syphilis to Nuremberg to be published: “Eight books on the Origins and Causes of the French Disease”. Publication of this was also forbidden of course. The publisher and Paracelsus’ supporters appealed to the authorities to get an independent assessment of the merits of the work. The “expert” the town council chose was the dean of the medical faculty at Leipzig who just happened to have a share in the Fuggers’ guaiac import business. He told the town council that neither this nor any other book by Paracelsus should be published in Nuremberg.

The “Paragramum”

During his stay in Beratzhausen, Paracelsus wrote the “Paragramum”, his most systematic exposition of his theory of medicine. None of Paracelus’ writings on syphilis were ever published in his lifetime.

A productive six months in St.Galen in Switzerland

Paracelsus next travelled 230 miles south west to St. Gallen in Switzerland near Lake Constance.

In St. Galen, the acting mayor was the famous humanist Vadianus who had been a teacher of humanities in Villach and a friend of Paracelus’ father . He later became rector of the University of Vienna where Paracelsus started his studies. He was also a friend of Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss reformation. Vadianus referred the ailing mayor Christian Studer to Paracelsus who stayed in Studer’s house for six months to treat him. Studer’s brother in law, Schobinger was interested in chemistry and he and Paracelsus set up a laboratory in a monastery which had become secularized by the reformation. (Schobinger later wrote somewhat disparagingly of Paracelsus’ obsession with alchemy). In St. Gallen, Paracelsus wrote his book on mental illness: “Invisible Diseases” and in 1530 Paracelsus put the finishing touches to his “Opus Paramirum”. According to Pachter, this was “… nothing less than a bio-chemical theory of physiology..” and “…the haziness of his details came from his visionary obsession with general principles…”

Paracelsus  leaves his manuscripts in St. Gallen – the start of a low point

In 1531 five catholic Swiss cantons fought the protestants of Zurich under the leadership of the head of the Swiss reformation: Zwingli, at the battle of Kappel. The protestants were greatly outnumbered and defeated and Zwingli was killed and his body burned as a heretic. The Catholics in Switzerland were now in the ascendancy. In 1532, Paracelsus’ patient Studer died. Paracelsus left his manuscripts in St. Gallen and started a period of wandering aimlessly. The manuscripts were discovered untouched centuries later. This was the start of a low point in Paracelsus’ life. He subsisted by begging.

Sterzing in the Italian Tyrol hit by plague – Paracelsus makes a beeline

In 1534 the town of Sterzing, (near Innsbruck and now in the Italian Tyrol), was stricken by plague. Paracelsus went there to help. The plague was halted. Paracelsus had been preaching in taverns against “….useless churchgoing, vain praying and fasting……” etc, etc. (Pachter)  (Presumably the citizens saw religious zealotry as their only means of deliverance from the plague). According to Paracelsus the priests had ordered him deported because they were unable to answer his arguments.

Accompanied by two friends from Sterzing, Theophrastus went to the nearby (by high alpine pass) town of Merano (also now in the Italian Tyrol near the Austrian border). Here he says he “found much honour, happiness and fortune”.

The first to recognise the real cause of miner’s lung disease

Paracelsus next journeyed 85 miles to St. Moritz and the nearby spa of Pfeffer-Ragatz where he wrote a pamphlet praising the virtues of the acidic spa water for dissolving “tartar” before travelling a further 130 miles in the same direction to Schwaz in the Inn valley in Austria, a centre of mining and smelting. These occupations resulted in many lung diseases and Parcelsus treated patients and was able to study the diseases. The result was the first book written on an occupational disease: “On Miner’s Consumption”. Up until then it was believed that the diseases were inflicted by the mountain spirits. Paracelsus said that they were respiratory diseases caused by metal vapours and treated them accordingly.

Writes “The Great Surgery Book”

In 1535 Paracelsus wrote the “Great Surgery Book” which appeared in two parts, published in 1536 to great acclaim. In the book, no operations were described, but rather how to avoid them. “The surgeon should know that not he but Nature is the healer….. Surgery consists in protecting Nature from suffering and accident from without that she may proceed unchecked in her operations.” The book was so successful that a second edition was published in 1537.

More alchemical research in Moravia

1537 finds Paracelsus another 360 miles away heading east to Brno in Moravia (the historical country which is now the eastern part of the Czech republic). He has been summoned to Kromau Castle to treat the Arch-Marshal of Bohemia. Unfortunately, Paracelsus was summoned too late to help and declared the Arch-Marshal too ill to treat. However, he lived at the castle for a while and set up his usual alchemical laboratory.

Bratislava in Kingdom of Hungary  lays on a banquet

Then onto Bratislava, 80 miles due south in the Kingdom of Hungary, now Slovakia. The town laid on a banquet for him.

Onto ‘Vienna and the usual pattern plays out

Following this, Paracelsus then travelled 50 miles west to Vienna where he was received with many honours.The usual pattern played itself out though. He cured many patients and made many friends but within a few months had spent all his money and made lots of enemies. Theophrastus was received by King Ferdinand of Bohemia and Hungary who promised a grant of 100 florins to pay for printing a new book on tartaric diseases. It seems that Paracelsus spent the advance which should have been paid to the printer and the affair ended in a typical Paracelsus imbroglio.

Paracelsus returns home

Broke, in 1537 Paracelsus returned home to Villach (220 miles south west of Vienna) where his father had died four years earlier. He was not welcomed with open arms by the citizens of Villach and the town doctors demonstrated during a church service which he attended, demanding his immediate departure. He went to St. Veith about 35 miles west/north west of Villach and about 12 miles north of Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia. He meant to settle down.

Dies in Salzburg

In 1540, the Prince Bishop of Salzburg offered Paracelsus asylum (140 miles from St. Veith) and Paracelsus spent his last days there, dying on 24th September 1541, two years before Oporinus, his former amanuensis, served as printer to Vesalius’s book on anatomy which would revolutionize that subject.

Paracelsus becomes a cult figure

Paracelsus died at the age of 48 – a respectable age to die in the middle ages, although he was probably worn out after 30 years of constantly travelling from town to town in many countries. The Zurich University Paracelsus project speculates that Paracelsus died from mercury poisoning – a delayed result of his lifelong alchemical experiments. Paracelsus managed to publish only a few books in his own lifetime, but after his death, stories of miraculous cures carried out by him abounded and some of his manuscripts, many of which he had left behind as he travelled from town to town were found and published. Twenty years after his death Paracelsus had become a cult figure. His huge output of works which were never published in his lifetime was then eagerly sought out and published – to the extent that some of the published works, especially on magic, are considered probable fakes. Paracelsus continues to fascinate – with Paracelsus scholarship and publishing of Paracelsus collected editions thriving in Germany in the 20th century and with an ongoing “Paracelus Project” currently at the university of Zurich. He was so prolific that even today, only a quarter of his works have been published. The Zurich “Project” estimates that when Parcelsus’s works are finally published in their entirety, there will be thirty large volumes

Paracelsus’ approach to medicine

“….I pondered over this a great deal, how uncertain an art medicine is, and how difficult to apply. Unless one is favoured by good luck, he may injure ten patients while curing one…..”
“And I thought demons were misleading men in this way, and again left the art alone and engaged in other pursuits…….” “…….As I thought this over I found that the medicine which I had learned was faulty, and that those who had written about it neither knew nor understood it. They all tried to teach what they did not know. They are vainglorious babblers in all their wealth and pomp, and there is not more in them than in a worm-eaten coffin…..”. “….So I had to look for a new approach.” (Modern day synthetic drug and surgery peddlers read and learn!)

Quote selected and translated from German by Pachter from Sudhoff edition of Paracelus collected works

“I do not know at once what ails the patient, but I need time to find out. That they (Galenic doctors) diagnose immediately is their foolishness, in the end the first diagnosis proves wrong and from day to day they know less…. whereas I, from day to day, approach closer to the truth”. (Quote selected from Sigerist edition and translated by Pachter).

Paracelsus believed that there was a specific remedy for each disease and the diagnosis of the disease depended on finding that remedy.

Paracelsus’ innovations:

*He was the founder of modern psychology and psychiatry, the first to say that mental illness was not caused by demonic possession but by natural causes. The word “psychology” was introduced 50 years after Paracelsus’ death by Gockel.

*He describes compulsion and the origins of aggression: “…curses work against those who utter them, not against the person at whom they are aimed…..” “…..A person who loathes himself may inflict the curse on himself.”

*He describes the power of suggestion (and brainwashing!): “Whether the subject of our faith be real or false, the effects are alike. I may believe in St. Peter’s image as much as I ought to believe in St. Peter himself. The effect will be the same. Of course, that is superstitious, but faith achieves the miracle whether it be the right or the wrong faith”. This is the famous French “la Méthode Coué”, (stolen and renamed “positive thinking” by Americans), five centuries ahead of its time!

*“Invisible Diseases” (mental illness) have a natural origin. Pachter (p. 229): “The descriptive method which began with him, liberated psychology from the tutelage of theology.”

*The first to describe metabolism which he called “Archeus”, the body’s alchemist, who separates the poison from the nourishing elements in food. “Sometimes the alchemist does his work imperfectly and does not divide the bad from the good thoroughly, and so decay arises in the mixed good and bad and there is indigestion”  “All maladies from the ents venemi (one of five of his classifications of illnesses) arise from defective digestion.” (Quote from Stodard edition by Ball.) So Paracelsus was the first “Natural Hygienist”. Modern medicine does not want us to know this very inconvenient, simple truth which is as true now as it was then. So, if I had a degenerative illness, who would I prefer to be treated by, the modern orthodox physician, or Paracelsus, the medieval magus? Paracelsus every time!

*Vitriols are sulfates of metals.

*First to recognize zinc as a metal and may have given it its name. Thereafter fusibility became the test of a metal.

*Was the first to use the word chemistry.

*Classified reagents by group of similar reaction.

*His classifications also included: quintessences, tinctures, elixirs, mysteriums

*Chemical medicines (what Paracelsus called: “Arcana”) which were known before Paracelsus: Liver of Sulfur (a poorly defined mixture of potassium sulfide, potassium polysulfide, potassium thiosulfate, and probably potassium bisulfide), sodium bicarbonate, compounds of mercury and antimony and sulphuric acid.

*Paracelsus added: Flower of sulfur, aka “brimstone”. According to internet sources, external application of flower of sulfur, an anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and antiseptic is good for just about anything, especially skin diseases, ticks, warts, athlete’s foot, etc. etc. If sufficiently pure it can be taken internally in small doses. Paracelsus also added Liver of Sulfur (pretty toxic), Blue Vitriol (Copper Sulphate – used internally as violent emetic but very toxic). He also added several compounds of zinc, arsenic and lead. His zinc ointment, aka calamine lotion, is still in use. It is very important to note that Paracelsus famously said, “The dose makes the poison”, in other words if he administered some of these very toxic chemicals internally it was in tiny doses and gave them with digestible herbs.

*Also: Sulphate salts made from “vitriol” sulphuric acid, (probably in the form of glauber’s salts or epsom salts) as preventative for mental illnesses and useful in a quarter of all illnesses according to Paracelus, including jaundice, stones, fevers, worms and epilepsy (Ball). Epsom salts are still used as part of a naturopathic procotol for eliminating gall stones.

*Knew how to flush stones harmlessly out of the gall bladder, kidneys and bladder using herbs and oils. (See epsom salts above). Something which naturopaths and herbalists still know today but which orthodox medicine has suppressed in favour of high tech, and/or surgical interventions.

*May have been the first to make “butter of antimony” – antimony chloride, a powerful emetic and purgative

*Looked for compounds of mercury which would have fewer side effects than pure mercury – used mercuric oxide

*Used “sweet oil of sulfphur” which was“vitriol” (sulphuric acid) mixed with red wine and then distilled; for epilepsy, syphilis, dropsy, gout and miners diseases. (Ball)

*Probably discovered how to make diethyl ether – used by surgeons as an anaesthetic in the nineteenth century. (Ball)

* Laudanum. This term was used by Paracelsus for his most powerful and secret remedy, reportedly kept in a secret compartment in the pommel of the giant broadsword which he wore everywhere, even sometimes to bed. The “laudanum” was described by Oporinus as pills like “mice droppings” which could “waken the dead” and which could “cure every disease except leprosy”. Laudanum was later used as the term for tincture of opium, widely used and abused as an analgesic in the seventeenth, eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Paracelsus openly describes the use of opiates and he was adept at making tinctures. He realised that the opiates were dissolved much easier in alcholol than in water. So Paracelsus definitely knew how to make tincture of opium but it seems that his laudanum was something else or something more than just tincture of opium. In any case, it seems that Paracelsus was the first to use this powerful (and addictive) analgesic although opiates are quite clearly mentioned in Dioscorides. (Note: in the twenty-first century, laudanum is only prescribed for “fulminant” diarrhoea.)

*Prescribed iron for “poverty of blood” (anemia) and recommendend choosing a plant that contained iron rather than “metallic iron”.

*For his day, gave the best description of the new disease of syphilis and its treatment. He recognized that it was spread by contact. According to Pachter, the doctors of the day were using pure mercury as a cauterizing agent to burn off the sores.

*Paracelsus used potassium bitartrate (the deposit left when wine is stored in oak barrels) to remove “tartar” (“treating like with like”) or oils and resins that made stones “as soft as honey”. (Ball) Could one of Paracelusus’ oils and resins be the gum from vines recommended for this purpose by Dioscorides?

*Some have seen in Paracelsus the first homeopath because of his belief that “like cures like” and “the dose makes the poison”. However, while in some cases his “like cures like” might be seen as an innovation, for example treating diarrhoeal illnesses with purging, instead of using constipating elements as the Galenist doctors of the time would have done, (Galen’s “Contraria contrariis curantur”), his “like” often came from the then common superstitious belief in “signatures”, so that the bumps on a toad’s skin suggested that a live toad would be a good treatment for the buboes of plague. Often the “like” suggested a genuine therapeutic agent such as the “potassium bitartrate” (cream of tartar) deposits left in oak barrels used for storing wine to dissolve “tartaric” deposits such as stones. Note: I cannot find any modern medicinal uses of cream of tartar apart from a naturopathic remedy using very small amounts to neutralize acute MSG poisoning. As with all of the clues we find to his remedies in his writings, they are only clues and Paracelsus kept the actual details of his remedies a closely guarded secret. So do NOT try to recreate any of them as many of them are extremely toxic!

Paracelsus quotes:

*“The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveller.…Knowledge is experience.”

*“The dose makes the poison.”

*“It is the living body that teaches the physician health and disease, not the dead one: he requires therefore a living anatomy.”

*“There are refuse materials in the body which are neither faeces in the ordinary sense nor subject to incorporation in man. They cannot be broken down, yet they are not man and they remain in man. Now there are such diseases which are caused by this refuse and vary according to the degree of separation and the location of the refuse. These diseases are stone and sand, glue and mud… These four are four types of refuse from food. They are all known as tartar..”

“It is in the vegetables like barley and peas which you can deduce from the mucus they produce and their thick texture. All kinds of food with this mucus lead to stone in the body. Milk products, meat, and fish have sand in them and this becomes tartar.”

Is this a proto Seignalet insight nearly five centuries before Dr. Seignalet? Orthodox medicine has not yet accepted Seignalet’s theories and is not likely to in the near future because it would mean the collapse of the present medical paradigm. If Paracelus realized that degenerative illnesses were caused by eating certain foods, as this seems to suggest, and if he used Seignalet type dietary prescriptions, then Paracelsus was still in advance of modern medicine, nothwithstanding his mummy powder and application of toads to plague pustules.

*The Great Surgery: “Surgery consists in protecting Naure from suffering and accident from without , that she may proceed unchecked in her operations”.

*“Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.”

*“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

*“Medicine rests upon four pillars – philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, the virtue of the physician. “

*Understood the power of suggestion. “If this person believes in what I say, he will be sure that it will come true, and see it before his imagination. If he goes to bed with this idea strongly entrenched in his mind, he will experience exactly what I told him.”

*“…as we desire things in our hearts, so they appear to us in dreams…”

*Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines

*Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosages makes it either a poison or a remedy.

Documented Successes:

*During his 6 year European odyssey after leaving Ferrara, he arrived in Copenhagen where King Christian’s mother was will with “melancholia” (depression). Paracelus cured her.

Paracelsus’ mistakes

*Mummy powder. Widely sold by pharmacies of the time. Real Egyptian mummies being hard to get hold of, a replacement was made from birds stuffed with spices then made into powder. Paracelsus thought this ineffective and insisted that the mummy should be human, made from hanged criminals for example! (Was this one of his bones of contention with the pharmacies of Basle?)
*Live toads for bubonic pustules.

*For hemorrhage, “moss grown on a skull”.

*(Like Pliny) Believed in traditional folk “Signatures”. For example orchids have the shape of testicles to indicate that their juice is an aphrodisiac. Liverwort and kidneywort have leaves in the shapes of the parts which they heal. Some such herbs have genuine healing properties coincidental with their “signatures”. Perhaps if they had not worked, the signature would not have suggested itself so readily.

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