The Devil's Doctor

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

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 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...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

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.