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Doctors and medicine

 November 11 or Dec. 17, 1493, Einsiedeln, Swiss Confederacy
September 24, 1541, Salzburg, Archbishopric of Salzburg [now in Austria]

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, was a German-Swiss physician and alchemist. He established the role of chemistry in medicine. He published Der grossen Wundartzney (“Great Surgery Book”) in 1536 and a clinical description of syphilis in 1530.



Paracelsus is said to have graduated from the University of Vienna with a baccalaureate in medicine in 1510. It is believed that he received his doctoral degree in 1516 from the University of Ferrara in Italy, where he was free to express his rejection of the prevailing view that the stars and planets controlled all the parts of the human body. He is thought to have begun using the name “para-Celsus” (above or beyond Celsus) at about that time  because he regarded himself as even greater than Celsus, a renowned 1st-century Roman physician.

Soon after taking his degree, he set out upon many years of wandering through Europe and took part in the “Netherlandish wars” as an army surgeon. Later Paracelsus went to Russia, was held captive by the Tatars, escaped into Lithuania, went south into Hungary, and again served as an army surgeon in Italy in 1521. Ultimately his wanderings brought him to Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Land, and, finally, Constantinople. Everywhere he sought out the most learned exponents of practical alchemy, not only to discover the most effective means of medical treatment but also-and even more important-to discover “the latent forces of Nature,” and how to use them.

Career at Basel

In 1524 Paracelsus returned to his home at Villach in southern Austria to find that his fame for many miraculous cures had preceded him. He was subsequently appointed town physician and lecturer in medicine at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and students from all parts of Europe came to the city to hear his lectures. Pinning a program of his forthcoming lectures to the notice board of the university on June 5, 1527, he invited not only students but anyone and everyone.

Three weeks later, on June 24, 1527, Paracelsus reportedly burned the books of Avicenna, the Arab “Prince of Physicians,” and those of Galen, in front of the university. This incident is said to have recalled in many people’s minds Martin Luther, who on Dec. 10, 1520, at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg had burned a papal bull, or edict, that threatened excommunication. While Paracelsus seemingly remained a Catholic to his death, it is suspected that his books were placed on the Index Expurgatorius, a catalogue of books from which passages of text considered immoral or against the Catholic religion are removed.

Paracelsus reached the peak of his career at Basel. In his lectures he stressed the healing power of nature and discouraged the use of methods of treating wounds, such as padding with moss or dried dung, that prevented natural draining. He also attacked many other medical malpractices of his time, including the use of worthless salves, fumigants, and drenches. However, by the spring of 1528 Paracelsus fell into disrepute with local doctors, apothecaries, and magistrates. He left Basel, heading first to Colmar in Upper Alsace, about 50 miles north of the university. He continued to travel for the next eight years. During this time, he revised old manuscripts and wrote new treatises. With the publication of Der grossen Wundartzneyin 1536 he restored, and even extended, the revered reputation he had earned at Basel.

Contributions to Medicine

In 1530 Paracelsus wrote a clinical description of syphilis, in which he maintained that the disease could be successfully treated by carefully measured doses of mercury compounds taken internally. He stated that the “miners’ disease” (silicosis) resulted from inhaling metal vapours and was not a punishment for sin administered by mountain spirits. He was the first to declare that, if given in small doses, “what makes a man ill also cures him,” an anticipation of the modern practice of homeopathy. Paracelsus is said to have cured many people in the plague-stricken town of Stertzing in the summer of 1534 by administering orally a pill made of bread containing a minute amount of the patient’s excreta he had removed on a needle point.

Paracelsus was the first to connect goitre with minerals, especially lead, in drinking water. He prepared and used new chemical remedies, including those containing mercury, sulfur, iron, and copper sulfate-thus uniting medicine with chemistry, as the first London Pharmacopoeia, in 1618, indicates. Paracelsus, in fact, contributed substantially to the rise of modern medicine, including psychiatric treatment.

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