The Devil's Doctor

by Philip Ball

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The Devil's Doctor

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For an intellectual vagabond who traveled throughout Europe and into Asia and Africa, seldom spending more than a year in any one place, the Swiss physician who called himself Paracelsus left an astonishing body of work. His medical texts alone run to fourteen large volumes in the standard German edition, and his writings on social and theological issues are still being edited. Many of his most important books have been translated into various languages, including modern German: He wrote in Early New High German (Frühneuhochdeutsch) with a dash of Swiss German (Schwyzerdütsch) and many words of his own coinage. He avoided academic language, as he avoided academics generally, claiming to have learned more from the simple working people he met on his travelsfrom miners and hangmen and barber-surgeons, from witches and magicians and alchemists.

Paracelsus had a choleric personality and what Philip Ball diagnoses as a persecution complex, but he had such faith in what is now called “holistic medicine” that he could make passionate statements even in a tract on syphilis or gout. In the generous acknowledgments to those who helped him, Ball explains that he never intended to write a biography but was drawn to Paracelsus when he tried to learn about Renaissance alchemy and its appeal to the later scientists. Paracelsus provided a window into the whole world of Renaissance magic and science, as the book’s subtitle notes, and indeed Ball is most helpful as a well-informed guide to the intellectual world that produced Paracelsus.

Like this world, Paracelsus was a bundle of contradictions. Ball uses a series of oxymorons to characterize him: “A humble braggart, a puerile sage, an invincible loser, a courageous coward, a pious heretic, an honest charlatan.” It is purely coincidental that one of his given names is Bombast. (Ball explains that it originally referred to a form of cotton-wool used in stuffing garments and was afterward attached to inflated language.) It may be coincidental that his self-given name, Paracelsus, implies one who has gone beyond the ancient medical authority Celsus. (Ball suggests it may simply be a classical version of the patronymic Hohenheim, meaning “high place.”) At any rate, it was his fortune to be born at a turning point in world history, one year after Columbus set sail for China and in time to witness the traffic that brought both gold and syphilis from the New World.

Paracelsus was close to his physician father, having lost his mother at an early age, and followed his father’s steps to study medicine and treat miners suffering from lung ailments. He thus became a forefather of occupational medicine. However, he had wanderlust to an extent unusual for any time. He traveled from one country to another, convinced that each region had its own diseases and its own treatments, as it had its own food and drink. Rejecting the stereotype of the academic physician who would not dirty hands or his fine gown, Paracelsus collected his own chemicals and compounded his own medicines, giving them extraordinary namesfor example, Azoth, which combines and first and last letters in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets.

Supporters called him the Luther of the physicians (Lutherus physicorum ) because he placed no trust in old traditions and insisted on the primacy of individual experience. Paracelsus was not flattered. Though he did dedicate a book to the religious reformer, the two never met, and probably would have disagreed on the centrally important topic of God’s wish for the age. Paracelsus tended to side with the peasant rebels, while Luther sought support from nobles. Indeed, it...

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is surprising that a man who traveled as widely as Paracelsus met so few of his more famous contemporaries. Perhaps he came closest when tending the Basel publisher Johann Froben, who was host at the time to the great humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus. They met only once. It was cordial, by all accounts, but the two were as remote from each other as the humanist’s classical Latin from the physician’s German dialect.

Paracelsus was the stuff of legendespecially the Faust legend, which gets attached to his biography in ways that require a skillful biographer to sort out. Because he is writing about the whole “world” of Paracelsus, Ball devotes a good deal of attention to historical figures like Luther and Erasmus, as well as semi-historical ones like Faust, in order to understand how the medical reforms of Paracelsus fit the larger pattern of reformation in culture and religion.

The chapters follow the course of Paracelsus’s career, at the center of which is his tumultuous year as professor of medicine at the University of Basel, beautifully imagined in Georg Wilhelm Papst’s classic film Paracelsus (1943). Typically, the story moves from Paracelsus to the places he inhabited, many of which Ball has clearly visited, and to Paracelsus’s contemporaries. The major writings of Paracelsus are discussed, in the order of their appearance, but usually without much depth. When Paracelsus is quoted, it is usually the memorable aside, often abusive of authorities like those in Basel, where he was lampooned and silenced, and which he was eventually forced to leave under the cover of darkness. He never quite got over the experience. His exhausted amanuensis, Oporonius, never forgave himself for writing down embarrassing information on the doctor’s personal hygiene, which was dreadful even for those times.

Of all the topics that Paracelsus wrote about, Ball is most interested in alchemy. Like Paracelsus, he takes this to be the process of purifying substances and making proper use of them. Paracelsus taught that there was an inner alchemist, or Archeus, in every person: an innate intelligence that knows how to absorb the best nutrients and expel the worst toxins. The alchemist in each human was not unlike the God who created the world, in a series of chemical separations and combinations, for the spirit left visible signs wherever it moved. The Paracelsian physician learned to read the marks in the Book of Nature, and thus to help in the work of God by bringing the right cures to an ailing body. It is difficult to separate the theological and the scientific elements in Paracelsus, who called himself a “Doctor of both Medicine and Theology.” His abandonment of the traditional four elements (fire, air, earth, water) for a new trinity (mercury, sulfur, salt) may have represented a move from an inorganic to an organic chemistry, as Ball suggests, but also replaced the established natural science of Aristotle with a grouping from the Arabic alchemists, and it placed a Trinity at the center of things.

Ball is also fascinated by the astrology that Paracelsus called a pillar of medicinenot the predictive astrology of newspaper horoscopes but the study of planetary influences. Here, even more than with alchemy, were the prospects of personal and natural “disasters” (literally, “ill starred events”). Here, too, were explanations for the misfortunes blamed on witches, the “wise women” for whom Paracelsus voiced nothing but sympathy. Based on his observations of heavenly bodies and their influences (literally, their “inflowings” into the world), he wrote “prognostications” for whole nations, very much as he gave prognoses for patients. When he died at the relatively early age of forty-sevenwhether of poisoning from his laboratory trials, of the drunkenness that his adversaries denounced, or of sheer exhaustion from his travelshe left the strange request that his body be quartered so that it could best absorb the earth’s nurture. What was revived, however, was the considerable body of work that he left in manuscript, work championed by a large and appropriately squabbling group of followers known as Paracelsians. The “revivalists” influenced Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and a host of modern thinkers.

Ball’s intellectual biography has been well received in his native Britain, where it appeared a few months before its American publication. Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, has praised the author for being both sympathetic and detached, aware of Paracelsus’s intellectual appeal but also of his real shortcomings. (The reviewer wonders whether Paracelsus really belongs in the medical pantheon, where a previous generation placed him, and is sure he would choose another physician for his own family.) The Daily Telegraph commends Ball for parting from historical practice enough to follow Carl Jung’s analysis of Paracelsus’s troubled psyche. The Economist, however, suggests that the balance of Paracelsus’s life and times is somewhat out of whack: that the book might be more helpful if it included more “life” and less “times.”

In the United States, Science News has praised Ball for his objective account of Paracelsus and of the origins of modern medical chemistry in medieval alchemy and astrology, while Booklist has commended the book as a “travelogue” of sixteenth century culture. Lest this seem a strictly mechanical view of healing, Ball points out that it was impossible for Paracelsus or his readers to ignore the theological implications of the “daily bread” on which people fed. “To Paracelsus, the material was spiritual, and the spiritual material.” Ball is modern enough to realize that the “spiritual” was often mental, and that some of the illness Paracelsus addressed would now be considered mental.

Ball has one serious handicap: He has no knowledge of German, so is unable to draw upon the large body of specialist scholarship by the Paracelsus Society (Paracelsusgesellschaft) and by students of German studies (Germanistik). Several excellent studies were published in Switzerland in conjunction with the quincentennial of Paracelsus’s birth in 1993, including Paracelsus: Mediziner, Heiler, Philosoph (Paracelsus: physician, healer, philosopher) by the folklorist Sergius Golowin and Paracelsus: Arzt und Prophet (Paracelsus: doctor and prophet) by the teacher-turned>politician Pirmin Meier.

To be sure, Ball has been able to avoid the rash of Aryan nonsense published about Paracelsus during the Nazi era, including work by the young Will-Erich Peuckert, who would go on to write standard studies of esoterica in Paracelsus’s era. Without some knowledge of this pseudo-scholarship, however, it is difficult to assess Jung’s wartime writings on Paracelsus, as Martin Haeusler has demonstrated in a recent edition of those texts.

Ball’s obvious strengths as a writer and as an observer of twenty-first century science more than compensate for any linguistic shortcomings. He knows enough science to gainsay the often simplistic pronouncements about the theory and practice of an earlier age. The study of Paracelsus will not be his only foray into the science of earlier periods, for he is now writing a study of the intellectual life at Chartres, where he thinks a whole vision of the cosmos was erected alongside the great cathedral. Graced with fifty black-and-white illustrations carefully integrated into the text, The Devil’s Doctor strikes something of a Faustian bargain with the reader. If you accept the Faustian fumes that hang around the historical figure, Ball seems to say, you will find a key to such secrets as the origin of modern biological medicine.


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Booklist 102 no. 15 (April 1, 2006): 11.

The Economist 378 (January 21, 2006): 81.

The Lancet 367 (April 29, 2006): 1389-1390.

Library Journal 131, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 116.

Nature 441 (May 11, 2006): 152-153.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 1 (January 2, 2006): 43.

Science News 167, no. 19 (May 13, 2006): 303.

The Spectator 300 (February 4, 2006): 41-42.