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Paracelsus (1493-1541) was an early Renaissance alchemist, philosopher and physician. His name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim but later became known as Paracelsus. He is credited (among other things) with founding the modern fields of pharmacology and toxicology. His thinking was revolutionary for its time, and he both profited and suffered for that originality. His unconventional professional practices included lecturing and writing in German (the language of the common people), rather than Latin, (the language of the educated elite), and devising new treatment schemes using chemicals rather than traditional medical remedies, as well as openly scoffing at Galen's notions of the four humors. The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia credits him with "the establishment of chemistry in medicine" and giving the "the most up-to-date description of syphilis" It adds that "he was the first to argue that small doses of what makes people ill can also cure them".[1] Many of his remedies were based on the Classical belief that "like cures like" and in this he was practising what today is regarded as homeopathy.

Sarah Richardson, Director of the Society of Homeopaths (U.K.), accords Paracelus a special place in the development of "the homeopathic principle", saying he went on to illustrate the principle by curing a village of the plague with medicine made from minute amounts of the villagers, own excreta".[2]

The background to this is the summer of 1534, during which Paracelsus claimed to have cured many in the plague-stricken town of Stertzing with pills containing a minute amount of the patient's excreta.[3] According to Anna Stoddart's The life of Paracelsus, Theophrastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541,

Paracelsus stayed some weeks at Stertzing and was appalled at the ignorance and helplessness of the local doctors... He decided to put his own experience and opinion into writing for the benefit of the afflicted town.... He appended to his diagnosis of the plague a series of counsels as to its treatment and a number of prescriptions and recipes. The little book in four chapters was presented to the " Burgomaster and Magistrates of Stertzingen, ... He received little thanks for his book from the civic worthies, but it is probable that during his stay in Stertzing he practised as one knowing the plague and made enough of money to provide himself with necessary clothing, food, and lodging."[4]

Paracelsus argued against the notion of 'authority' as a basis for the tenets of medical practice, and instead advocated observation and research with empiric evaluation of results. He combined his own philosophy and religious beliefs into a system of medical practice that also incorporated alchemy. In so doing, he helped push medicine towards the Enlightenment.

Reportedly an immensely arrogant man, "he began using the name “Paracelsus” (above and beyond Celsus) rather than his real name (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim) because he regarded himself as even greater than Celsus, the renowned 1st-century Roman encyclopedist and medical writer" [5]. He alienated other physicians by openly ridiculing their thinking, and accusing them of greed.

On the other hand, he was altruistic and used his knowledge of alchemy to try to find cures to help others. He wrote: "No one requires greater love of the heart than the physician. For him the ultimate instance is man's distress. Privilege and lineage pale to nothingness, only distress has meaning."[6].

"The word "bombastic" comes from his original name (of "Bombast") and is an ironic tribute to his aggressive and combative personality."[7].

Early life

Born in Switzerland, his first training in medicine was apparently from his father, Wilhelm of Hohenheim, a physician. Wilhelm was said to be the illegitimate son of a prince.

At age 16, Philippus began to study alchemy, medicine, and philosophy at the University at Basel in Germany. These subjects would continue to fascinate him throughout his life.

Even then, when first attending University, he exhibited the characteristics that would typify him during later adulthood, he failed to show reverence for academic traditions and - dissatisfied with what was available to him, soon left the University and began to travel throughout Europe. He continued his studies in many countries, including Germany, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Russia, attending many schools, but never finishing any formal course of training.

"Between 1513 and 1524 and Paracelsus visited almost every part of the known world. During his travels he compiled the wisdom present at the time on metallurgy, chemistry, and medicine, and the folk wisdom of the untutored." (reference for quote:Paracelsus." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 5th ed. Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.)

His service as a military surgeon in Venice likely exposed him to some of the teachings of the Arab physicians.

Medical practice

Paracelsus worked as he travelled and gained fame for his cures as a physician. He became the physician of choice for a wealthy and powerful clientele, "yet attacked repeatedly the rich in his political and theological writings, identifying with peasants and artisans" .

He ceased his constant travel and settled in Basel, in 1524, obtaining the chair of medicine at the University. Far from trying to get along with his professional peers, now that he had gained such a respectable position, he publicly ridiculed established dogma: even making a show of burning the works of both Galen and Avicenna in a public square.

In 1525, he was arrested in Salzburg during an uprising that was part of the Great Peasants War. He left the city and continued travelling, apparently never remaining at any one place for more than about two years (reference: Gravenstein JS. Paracelsus and his contributions to anesthesia. [Gravenstein JS. Paracelsus and his contributions to anesthesia. Anesthesiology. 26(6):805-11, 1965 Nov-Dec. UI: 5320896).

Four pillars of Medicine

  1. Astronomy - the place of man in the Cosmos, Earth, and Celestial Spheres
  2. Chemistry-knowledge of chemical drugs prescribed in correct dosage
  3. Virtue -fear of God, and motivation by love and not by selfish gain
  4. Philosophy -love of man, knowledge of nature, and unity of doctor, patient, and treatment to effect a cure.

(Bloch H. Paracelsus: resolute Renaissance pioneer. [Biography. Historical Article. Journal Article] Southern Medical Journal. 79(12):1564-6, 1986 Dec. UI: 3538431)


Many sources state that his death was natural, but that there were rumors of poisoning by his fellow physicians, and also of being pushed off a height or incline.

Although in life Paracelsus showed "aversion to any form of religion" (see external link), a clause in his will gave directions for a requiem Mass [1]

Contributions to the advance of medicine


"Among his scientific and medical contributions was the advocacy of clean, near-aseptic surgical technique and opposition to the use of boiling oil for cleansing gunshot wounds". (reference for quote: Romanovsky AA. Paracelsus on wound treatment.[comment]. [Biography. Comment. Historical Article. Letter] Lancet. 354(9193):1910, 1999 Nov 27. UI: 10584756)


Along with Valerius Cordus , he is credited as having first used ether (ref: Gravenstein JS. Paracelsus and his contributions to anesthesia. Anesthesiology. 26(6):805-11, 1965 Nov-Dec. UI: 5320896. ). Paracelsus describes a distillation method that would yield a mixture containing ether, and advises its use for epilepsy.

Publications by Paracelsus

Grosse Wund Artzney von allen Wunden (1536)


  1. The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, second edition, edited by David Crystal
  2. New Ways to Health: A Guide to Homeopathy, by Sarah Richardson, Hamlyn 1988, page 46
  3. . Cited by Homeopathy Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. From " The life of Paracelsus, Theophrastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541" by Anna M. Stoddart (1911)
  5. Nannapaneni R. Behari S. Todd NV. Mendelow AD. Retracing "Ondine's curse". [Journal Article] Neurosurgery. 57(2):354-63; discussion 354-63, 2005 Aug. UI: 16094167)
  6. Jacobi J, ed. Paracelsus: selected writings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958: page 57
  7. "Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim." World of Health. Online. Thomson Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007