Article abstract: Paracelsus has been hailed as the founder of biochemistry. He also made major contributions to the development of modern chemistry and made revolutionary changes in Renaissance medical theory and practice.
Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, known to the world as Paracelsus, was born in 1493 in the village of Einsiedeln, Swiss Confederation. He was the only son of a physician, Wilhelm of Hohenheim, who came from a noble Swabian family whose original seat was at Hohenheim, near Stuttgart in northern Germany. Paracelsus’ mother, Els Ochsner, came from a family of peasants living on land belonging to the local Benedictine Abbey, and she worked as a nurse’s aid. Because his illegitimate father had no legal right to the family heritage, Paracelsus was reared in poverty. Yet he said that his home environment was quiet and peaceful, although his mother apparently suffered from manic depression and committed suicide when he was nine.
Following his wife’s death, Wilhelm and his son moved to Villach, Austria. Paracelsus probably attended the mining school of the Fuggers at nearby Hutenberg, where his father was a tutor. In Paracelsus’ writings, he pays generous tribute to his father, who played a large part in his son’s education. Paracelsus also states that he learned from experts, including bishops and an abbot. It is therefore likely that he received what was considered to be a universal education, including cabalistic, alchemical, and magical traditions, as well as orthodox religion and philosophy. It is clear, however, that Paracelsus neglected many of the formal aspects of his education. His Latin was not good, and he never acquired elegance in either speech or writing.
In 1507, at the age of fourteen, Paracelsus became a traveling student, attending universities in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. He studied for a bachelor’s degree at Vienna between 1509 and 1511, and between 1513 and 1516 he traveled and studied medicine in Italy, notably at Ferrara. Yet he was a restless, pugnacious, and rebellious student, and he soon found himself completely dissatisfied with the education that was offered by the universities he attended. From 1517 to 1524, he again traveled extensively throughout Europe. He was employed as a military surgeon in Venice and was involved in three wars of the period. He traveled to Moscow when the Grand Duke Basil invited Western physicians and Humanists to the Russian court, accompanied a Tatar prince on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, and visited the Holy Land and Alexandria. In all of his journeys, Paracelsus was building the knowledge that would enable him to revolutionize many aspects of Renaissance medicine.
With his fame spreading rapidly and many of his cures being regarded as miraculous, Paracelsus reached Salzburg in 1524. Yet the following year he was arrested for siding with the peasants in the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526 and was forced to flee. In 1526, he arrived in Strasbourg and was entered in the city register as a surgeon. He apparently enjoyed great popularity there and was consulted by many prominent men. Yet he left after less than a year, for unknown reasons. During this period, he wrote eleven treatises on various diseases, ranging from tuberculosis to gout.
From Strasbourg, he traveled to Basel, where he cured the famous and influential printer Johann Froben. Through Froben, he was introduced to the intellectual elite of Basel, the result being his appointment as municipal physician and professor of medicine at Basel in March, 1527. This influential position proved to be the highlight of Paracelsus’ professional life. Yet he made no attempt to moderate his habitually aggressive and combative manner. He challenged the established medical system by saying that he would not accept the authority of Hippocrates or Galen. Instead, he would form his theories from his direct experience in dealing with the sick. In a famous incident, he put Avicenna’s classical works on medicine to the bonfire. The authorities retaliated by refusing him the right to lecture and disputing his medical qualifications. Yet Paracelsus continued his work. Defying all tradition, he lectured in German rather than Latin, and he drew large and appreciative audiences. Many were attracted by his credo: “The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.”
Yet having made so many enemies, Paracelsus’ fortunes soon took a turn for the worse. His benefactor, Froben, died suddenly in October, and shortly afterward a malicious lampoon of Paracelsus appeared. He counterattacked in typical fashion, denouncing past authorities and his colleagues in extreme language: They were all liars, cheats, and fakes, according to him. The situation came to a head when Paracelsus accused the town magistrate of ignorance and bias after a legal...
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