Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus (pt. 1) – Science and Magic

All the universities have less experience than my beard. The down on my neck is more learned than my antagonists. You must follow my footsteps. I shall not go in yours. Not one of your professors will find a cover so well hidden that the dogs will come and lift them by the legs and defile them. I shall become a monarch, mine will be the monarchy which I shall rule to make you gird up your loins!

Every historian who wants to prove science emerged neatly as a reaction against medieval magic and mysticism, will at some point be faced with the paradox that is Paracelsus. One part proto-renaissance physician, one part medieval magus, this so-called “Luther of Medicine” harrowingly straddled the light and dark worlds of 16th century Europe. If single-handedly, he crossed the Rubicon into modern medicine, chemistry, toxicology, and psychiatry, he also bore the full force of their birth pangs. Scorned by the establishment in his own time, and obscured by history since, Paracelsus is never quite where you look for him. But root him out, and his rich hoard of alchemical treasures is yours for the taking. For science, as anyone who looks deep into Paracelsus’ eye will see, is at heart a form of magick!

The so-called "wound man" of medieval medical texts gives us a glimpse into the common pathologies of the day

So…um…anyways. Humorism! If you fell ill in medieval Europe your family might blame a vengeful God, but your friendly neighborhood doctor would almost certainly attribute it to a natural imbalance of bodily humors.

Blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, these were the four basic substances that had characterized Western medicine since the age of Hippocrates (~450 BC). Have a fever? It was probably caused by too much yellow bile. Leprosy? Too much black bile.2 Do you suffer from a hernia, a bluish right elbow, and, in the course of your illness have developed a desire for wine? That’s a sure fire sign your humors are fucked.3 You’ll be lucky to last a week.3

Never mind that many of these diagnoses make no sense, and that the therapies offered—like bloodletting and trepanation (literally boring a hole in the skull)—do more harm than good. Medieval medicine had more in common with religious dogma than with controlled scientific experimentation. Arabian and Roman medical philosophers like Avicenna and Galen (the so-called “medical Pope of the Middle Ages”) were treated as godlike authorities.4 To question their gospel was tantamount to heresy.4

The physician was, in these days, a scholar. His medical secrets lay hidden in the fading tomes of high-mountain monastic libraries5. Brutish surgeries and dissections were left to menial orderlies6. Never would a doctor deign to cut into a dead body! As the picture below shows, doctors preferred to direct the proceedings from high upon their pedestal, textbook in hand,6 pointy finger at the ready.

Portrait of a medieval dissection or "post-mortem"

Paracelsus didn’t cotton to this ivory cloister elitism. In fact, he would spend the better part of his life loudly and crazily raging against the medieval medical establishment.

Case in point: his brief stint as a professor of medicine at the Swiss University of Basel. In his very first lecture no less, directed at “the Ignorance, the Avarice and the Strutting Vanity of the Doctors of Basel,” Paracelsus startled everyone by damning the entire history of western medicine, setting fire to a volume of Roman medical literature, and declaring that he would be their new king.7

“Would the Astronomer put away his divining, the philosopher his unreasonableness and the logician his lies, ye may yet find some ground in medicine,” Paracelsus wrote, reflecting the paltry esteem in which he held his peers.9

Paracelsus angry

For him, the “reason” and “logic” of medieval medicine were dangerous tools that obscured reality.9 A true doctor gained wisdom through experience and “experiments, which are the greatest masters of everything.”1

He was among the first to experiment with inorganic chemical medicines.10 Armed with an advanced knowledge of alchemy, Paracelsus fashioned new cures from minerals, metals, and salts.10 In fact laudanum, an opium tincture first developed by Paracelsus, is prescribed today under the same name.11

Still, his fellow faculty members at Basel were none too impressed. And neither for that matter, were his students, who found him “demanding, unpredictable and often frightening.”8 A mere 10 months after Paracelsus took up his post, after he published an inflammatory manifesto deriding the local medical establishment, steadfastly refused to lecture in Latin, failed to provide his university credentials, publicly insulted a judge, and following accusations of malpractice by town apothecaries, and charges of gross drunken incompetence by his Basel medical colleagues, Paracelsus skipped town in the middle of the night for fear of poison.8

“The universities do not teach all things,” Paracelsus wrote, “so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers…and take lessons from them.”12

Much of the “experience” the man so mightily prized came out of aimless wanderings along the fringe. Trading secrets with Mongol shamans in Russia, gleaning “magical instructions” from physicians in Alexandria, pilfering hidden treasures in the High Arctic8—what would melt a lesser man’s brain down useless goo, Paracelsus forged into an entirely new kind of medicine, based on curiosity and experience.

Paracelsianism, as his system came to be called, took the doctor out of the library and threw him into the real world with such force the reverberations are still being felt. His unbounded thirst for knowledge and his hatred for stultifying theoretical dogma set thinkers on the path to modern science.

It also, more subtly, opened the door to new breed of mad scientist, driven not by logic, but by sheer, unbridled faith in the absurd. So much of what is mad about science in the past 500 years grew out of the mind of this old fool. I would argue he could accurately be thought of as the Galileo of our small sect.

Over the next couple weeks, we’ll look at some of Paracelsus’ strangest ideas and examine how they helped shape the course of mad science over centuries.

Illustration of a Salamander from one of Paracelsus' works

1. Klawans, H.L. (1982). Medicine of History: From Paracelsus to Freud. Raven Press.
2. Demaitre, L. (1975). Theory and Practice in Medical Education at the University of Montpellier in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Journal of the History of Medicine, 30(2), 103-123.
3. Smoller, A.L. (2000). Skin pathology and medical prognosis in medieval Europe: the secrets of Hippocrates. American Journal of Dermopathology, 22(6), 550-6.
4. Viale, G.L. (2003). Return to Galen. Neurosurgery, 53(1), 205-210.
5. Goodrich, J.T. (2004). History of spine surgery in the ancient and medieval worlds. Neurosurgical Focus, 16(1), E2.
6. Clodius, L. (1984). Paracelsus Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) and plastic surgeons today. History of Plastic Surgery, 17, 57-63.
7. Davis, T.L. (1928). Boerhaave’s account of Paracelsus and Van Helmont. Journal of Chemical Education, 5(6), 671-681.
8. Ball, P. (2006). The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance and Magic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
9. Rattansi, P. and Pagel, W. (1964). Vesalius and Paracelsus. Medical History, 8(4), 309-326.
10. Borzelleca, J.F. (2000). Paracelsus: herald of modern toxicology. Toxicological Sciences, 53, 2-4.
11. Gravenstein, J.S. (1965). Paracelsus and his contributions to anesthesia. Anesthesiology, 26(6), 805-811.
12. Lund F.B. (1931). Paracelsus. Annals of Surgery, 94(4), 548-561.
13. Williams, G.S., Gunnoe, C.D., Jr. (2002) Paracelsian moments: science, medicine, & astrology in early modern Europe. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press.
14. Webster, C. (2002). Paracelsus, paracelsianism, and the secularization of the worldview. Science in Context, 15(1), 9-27.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>