Health

Paracelsus, the doctor who was an alchemist

Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, is considered one of the most important figures in the history of medicine. Born on November 11, 1493 for some and for others on December 17 of the same year, Paracelsuswhich came to be described as crazy and visionary, waswithout a doubt, a man with an overflowing imagination and moved out of an enormous desire for knowledge. This desire led him to search almost obsessively for the philosopher’s stone, an unknown alchemical substance capable of turning lead into gold, as well as providing the elixir of eternal youth.

His hectic life was not without adventure, although he was also an extraordinary investigator. In fact, he is also considered the father of modern sciences such as toxicology and pharmacology. Paracelsus studied all the medical treatises of his time, but considering that he had far exceeded that ancient knowledge, it is said that one night of San Juan he came to throw such emblematic works as the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna and the complete works of Galen while shouting: “There is more wisdom in my shoe straps than in all those books.”

“Medicine is learned”

Born and raised in the Swiss town of Einsiedeln, Paracelsus was the son of the physician and alchemist Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, who practiced medicine in the mining regions of the south of the country, which served to the boy will start inknowledge of the chemistry of metals and learn how to work them. After studying at the universities of Basel and Vienna, Paracelsus continued his studies in Chemistry and Medicine at various universities in Germany and France, and received his doctorate at the University of Ferrara.

Paracelsus continued his studies in chemistry and medicine at various universities in Germany.

Lithograph of Paracelsus made around the year 1540.

Lithograph of Paracelsus made around the year 1540.

Lithograph of Paracelsus made around the year 1540.

Photo: PS

Under the protection of the scholar and reformist Juan Ecolampadio, Paracelsus obtained a professorship at the Basel Faculty of Medicine in 1526, city ​​that was at that time one of the main centers of Renaissance humanism. Paracelsus would meet there the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam and the bookseller Wolfgang Lachner. His incredible talent made him the youngest professor at the university at just 34 years old.

But finally Paracelsus had to leave the city after earning the animosity of his colleagues, among other reasons for declaring that medicine could be learned, but could never be taught. “He who can cure diseases is a doctor. Neither emperors nor popes nor higher schools can create doctors. They can confer privileges and make a person who is not a doctor appear as one. They can give him permission to kill, but not can give you the power to heal,” he said.

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Too much eloquence creates enmities

Thus, his complex character and his ideas caused him to become enemies with the entire academic sphere. His colleagues began to attack him, placing special emphasis on his unattractive physical appearance. Paracelsus began to be mocked for being short, bald and prone to obesity (perhaps for that reason the scientist always preferred the company of those most in need). Nonetheless, Paracelsus continued to innovate and decided to start teaching his classes in German so that they reach the largest possible number of listeners. In 1528, in view of the frequent confrontations that he had with his medical colleagues and also with the pharmacists, he decided to leave Basel for good and move very close to Stuttgart, in Germany.

Paracelsus was mocked for being short, bald, and prone to obesity.

Lithograph depicting Paracelsus realized by Romeyn de Hooghe.  1701.

Lithograph depicting Paracelsus realized by Romeyn de Hooghe. 1701.

Lithograph depicting Paracelsus realized by Romeyn de Hooghe. 1701.

Photo: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

During the time that Paracelsus practiced in Austria, Switzerland and Germany He earned a reputation as a good doctor. but nevertheless his unleashed eloquence continued to bring him the enmity of his colleagues. And it is that Paracelsus, despite his scientific nature, also gave absolute credence to magic, astrology and alchemy. Nonetheless, his medical doctrines, especially in the field of therapeutics, are considered especially important for two reasons: the initiation of the use of medicines (in fact, he was the first to supply laudanum), since he considered that each disease should have its treatment, and because was the first to argue that certain poisonsadministered in small doses, They could be used as medicines.

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Moving forward with experimentation

With his lights and his shadows, Paracelsus was an innovator. Among other things, he wanted to ban polypharmaceuticals from medical use (that is, the use of multiple ingredients to prepare medicines) with the aim of simplifying the most complex preparations. He was also a great disseminator of new preparations (discovered mostly by himself thanks to his experiments) compounds based on antimony, iron, sulfur, mercury or salts, and even vegetables. He also advocated the union of medicine and surgery, which at that time was separate (the latter was for the exclusive use of barbers).

Regarding the reason for diseases, according to Paracelsus there were five possible causes: the action of the stars, the toxic action of food, heredity and constitution, certain psychic factors and the divine will. Likewise held that man, microcosm, was part of a larger entity, the universe or macrocosm, made up of elements such as sulfur, mercury or salt, ordered by a vital principle called archaeus.

Paracelsus wanted to ban polypharmaceuticals from medical use to simplify preparations.

The Alchemist.  Picture painted by the artist David Ryckaert III in the year 1649 (Museo del Prado).

The Alchemist. Picture painted by the artist David Ryckaert III in the year 1649 (Museo del Prado).

The Alchemist. Picture painted by the artist David Ryckaert III in the year 1649 (Museo del Prado).

Photo: PS

According to Paracelsus, medicine was a fundamental science. due to the union that occurs in it between nature and the art of manipulating it, and because its study could illuminate the relationship between the external world and the internal world. He also believed that the only way to advance scientifically was through experimentation. supported by a theory (an absolutely modern idea), since he said that without experiment and practice reality cannot be known, although he also believed in the importance of speculation and theory, since he thought that without them knowledge “is not but a sterile set of rules.

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Scientific work and legacy

Among the writings of Paracelsus stands out the big surgery (Die Grosse Wundartzney), perhaps his most important work. wrote treatises on diseases such as syphilis or respiratory diseases suffered by minersand works that describe the vision of his human and cosmological system: Liber Paragranum (1530) and Opus Paramirum (1532).

After his early death on September 24, 1541, apparently assassinated by some highwaymen, his followers were increasing, especially in France and Germany, although they also did so in other places, such as Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, and even in the 18th. In fact, among all his theories, it was the biological and alchemical ones that had the greatest number of followers.

It was Paracelsus’s biological and alchemical theories that had the greatest number of followers.

Finally, Paracelsus is also due to the idea that a doctor should feel empathy for his patients to be able to cure them, a concept that has reached our days and cannot be more contemporary: “The doctor must be loyal and charitable. The selfish person will do very little in favor of his patients. Knowing the experiences of others is very important for a doctor.”

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