The Evolution of Modern Medicine: Chapter IV - PARACELSUS by@williamosler

The Evolution of Modern Medicine: Chapter IV - PARACELSUS

The Evolution of Modern Medicine, by William Osler is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series.
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William Osler

The Evolution of Modern Medicine

The Evolution of Modern Medicine, by William Osler is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.

PARACELSUS is "der Geist der stets verneint." He roused men against the dogmatism of the schools, and he stimulated enormously the practical study of chemistry. These are his great merits, against which must be placed a flood of hermetical and transcendental medicine, some his own, some foisted in his name, the influence of which is still with us.

"With what judgment ye judge it shall be judged to you again" is the verdict of three centuries on Paracelsus. In return for unmeasured abuse of his predecessors and contemporaries he has been held up to obloquy as the arch-charlatan of history. We have taken a cheap estimate of him from Fuller and Bacon, and from a host of scurrilous scribblers who debased or perverted his writings. Fuller(4) picked him out as exemplifying the drunken quack, whose body was a sea wherein the tide of drunkenness was ever ebbing and flowing—"He boasted that shortly he would order Luther and the Pope, as well as he had done Galen and Hippocrates. He was never seen to pray, and seldome came to Church. He was not onely skilled in naturall Magick (the utmost bounds whereof border on the suburbs of hell) but is charged to converse constantly with familiars. Guilty he was of all vices but wantonnesse: . . . "


Francis Bacon, too, says many hard things of him.(5)


To the mystics, on the other hand, he is Paracelsus the Great, the divine, the most supreme of the Christian magi, whose writings are too precious for science, the monarch of secrets, who has discovered the Universal Medicine. This is illustrated in Browning's well-known poem "Paracelsus," published when he was only twenty-one; than which there is no more pleasant picture in literature of the man and of his aspirations. His was a "searching and impetuous soul" that sought to win from nature some startling secret—". . . a tincture of force to flush old age with youth, or breed gold, or imprison moonbeams till they change to opal shafts!" At the same time with that capacity for self-deception which characterizes the true mystic he sought to cast


Much has been done of late to clear up his story and his character. Professor Sudhoff, of Leipzig, has made an exhaustive bibliographical study of his writings,(7) there have been recent monographs by Julius Hartmann, and Professors Franz and Karl Strunz,(8) and a sympathetic summary of his life and writings has been published by the late Miss Stoddart.(9) Indeed there is at present a cult of Paracelsus. The hermetic and alchemical writings are available in English in the edition of A. E. Waite, London, 1894. The main facts of his life you can find in all the biographies. Suffice it here to say that he was born at Einsiedeln, near Zurich, in 1493, the son of a physician, from whom he appears to have had his early training both in medicine and in chemistry. Under the famous abbot and alchemist, Trithemiusof Wurzburg, he studied chemistry and occultism. After working in the mines at Schwatz he began his wanderings, during which he professes to have visited nearly all the countries in Europe and to have reached India and China. Returning to Germany he began a triumphal tour of practice through the German cities, always in opposition to the medical faculty, and constantly in trouble. He undoubtedly performed many important cures, and was thought to have found the supreme secret of alchemistry. In the pommel of his sword he was believed to carry a familiar spirit. So dominant was his reputation that in 1527 he was called to the chair of physic in the University of Basel. Embroiled in quarrels after his first year he was forced to leave secretly, and again began his wanderings through German cities, working, quarrelling, curing, and dying prematurely at Saltzburg in 1541—one of the most tragic figures in the history of medicine.


Paracelsus is the Luther of medicine, the very incarnation of the spirit of revolt. At a period when authority was paramount, and men blindly followed old leaders, when to stray from the beaten track in any field of knowledge was a damnable heresy, he stood out boldly for independent study and the right of private judgment. After election to the chair at Basel he at once introduced a startling novelty by lecturing in German. He had caught the new spirit and was ready to burst all bonds both in medicine and in theology. He must have startled the old teachers and practitioners by his novel methods. "On June 5, 1527, he attached a programme of his lectures to the black-board of the University inviting all to come to them. It began by greeting all students of the art of healing. He proclaimed its lofty and serious nature, a gift of God to man, and the need of developing it to new importance and to new renown. This he undertook to do, not retrogressing to the teaching of the ancients, but progressing whither nature pointed, through research into nature, where he himself had discovered and had verified by prolonged experiment and experience. He was ready to oppose obedience to old lights as if they were oracles from which one did not dare to differ. Illustrious doctor smight be graduated from books, but books made not a single physician.(10) Neither graduation, nor fluency, nor the knowledge of old languages, nor the reading of many books made a physician, but the knowledge of things themselves and their properties. The business of a doctor was to know the different kinds of sicknesses, their causes, their symptoms and their right remedies. This he would teach, for he had won this knowledge through experience, the greatest teacher, and with much toil. He would teach it as he had learned it, and his lectures would be founded on works which he had composed concerning inward and external treatment, physic and surgery."(11) Shortly afterwards, at the Feast of St. John, the students had a bonfire in front of the university. Paracelsus came out holding in his hands the "Bible of medicine," Avicenna's "Canon," which he flung into the flames saying: "Into St. John's fire so that all misfortune may go into the air with the smoke." It was, as he explained afterwards, a symbolic act: "What has perished must go to the fire; it is no longer fit for use: what is true and living, that the fire cannot burn." With abundant confidence in his own capacity he proclaimed himself the legitimate monarch, the very Christ of medicine. "You shall follow me," cried he, "you, Avicenna, Galen, Rhasis, Montagnana, Mesues; you, Gentlemen of Paris, Montpellier, Germany, Cologne, Vienna, and whomsoever the Rhine and Danube nourish; you who inhabit the isles of the sea; you, likewise, Dalmatians, Athenians; thou, Arab; thou, Greek; thou, Jew; all shall follow me, and the monarchy shall be mine."(12)


This first great revolt against the slavish authority of the schools had little immediate effect, largely on account of the personal vagaries of the reformer—but it made men think. Paracelsus stirred the pool as had not been done for fifteen centuries.

Much more important is the relation of Paracelsus to the new chemical studies, and their relation to practical medicine. Alchemy, he held, "is to make neither gold nor silver: its use is to make the supreme sciences and to direct them against disease." He recognized three basic substances, sulphur, mercury and salt, which were the necessary ingredients of all bodies organic or inorganic. They were the basis of the three principles out of which the Archaeus, the spirit of nature, formed all bodies. He made important discoveries in chemistry; zinc, the various compounds of mercury, calomel, flowers of sulphur, among others, and he was a strong advocate of the use of preparations of iron and antimony. In practical pharmacy he has perhaps had a greater reputation for the introduction of a tincture of opium—labdanum or laudanum—with which he effected miraculous cures, and the use of which he had probably learned in the East.

Through Paracelsus a great stimulus was given to the study of chemistry and pharmacy, and he is the first of the modern iatro-chemists. In contradistinction to Galenic medicines, which were largely derived from the vegetable kingdom, from this time on we find in the literature references to spagyric medicines and a "spagyrist" was a Paracelsian who regarded chemistry as the basis of all medical knowledge.

One cannot speak very warmly of the practical medical writings of Paracelsus. Gout, which may be taken as the disease upon which he had the greatest reputation, is very badly described, and yet he has one or two fruitful ideas singularly mixed with mediaeval astrology; but he has here and there very happy insights, as where he remarks "nec praeter synoviam locqum alium ullum podagra occupat."(13) In the tract on phlebotomy I see nothing modern, and here again he is everywhere dominated by astrological ideas—"Sapiens dominatur astris."


As a protagonist of occult philosophy, Paracelsus has had a more enduring reputation than as a physician. In estimating his position there is the great difficulty referred to by Sudhoff in determining which of the extant treatises are genuine. In the two volumes issued in English by Waite in 1894, there is much that is difficult to read and to appreciate from our modern standpoint. In the book "Concerning Long Life" he confesses that his method and practice will not be intelligible to common persons and that he writes only for those whose intelligence is above the average. To those fond of transcendental studies they appeal and are perhaps intelligible. Everywhere one comes across shrewd remarks which prove that Paracelsus had a keen belief in the all-controlling powers of nature and of man's capacity to make those powers operate for his own good: "the wise man rules Nature, not Nature the wise man." "The difference between the Saint and the Magus is that the one operates by means of God, and the other by means of Nature." He had great faith in nature and the light of nature, holding that man obtains from nature according as he believes. His theory of the three principles appears to have controlled his conception of everything relating to man, spiritually, mentally and bodily; and his threefold genera of disease corresponded in some mysterious way with the three primary substances, salt, sulphur and mercury.

How far he was a believer in astrology, charms and divination it is not easy to say. From many of the writings in his collected works one would gather, as I have already quoted, that he was a strong believer. On the other hand, in the "Paramirum," he says: "Stars control nothing in us, suggest nothing, incline to nothing, own nothing; they are free from us and we are free from them" (Stoddart, p. 185). The Archaeus, not the stars, controls man's destiny. "Good fortune comes from ability, and ability comes from the spirit" (Archaeus).

No one has held more firmly the dualistic conception of the healing art. There are two kinds of doctors; those who heal miraculously and those who heal through medicine. Only he who believes can work miracles. The physician has to accomplish that which God would have done miraculously, had there been faith enough in the sick man (Stoddart, p. 194). He had the Hippocratic conception of the "vis medicatrix naturae"—no one keener since the days of the Greeks. Man is his own doctor and finds proper healing herbs in his own garden: the physician is in ourselves, in our own nature are all things that we need: and speaking of wounds, with singular prescience he says that the treatment should be defensive so that no contingency from without could hinder Nature in her work (Stoddart, p. 213).

Paracelsus expresses the healing powers of nature by the word "mumia," which he regarded as a sort of magnetic influence or force, and he believed that anyone possessing this could arrest or heal disease in others. As the lily breaks forth in invisible perfume, so healing influences may pass from an invisible body. Upon these views of Paracelsus was based the theory of the sympathetic cure of disease which had an extraordinary vogue in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which is not without its modern counterpart.

In the next century, in Van Helmont we meet with the Archaeus everywhere presiding, controlling and regulating the animate and inanimate bodies, working this time through agents, local ferments. The Rosicrucians had their direct inspiration from his writings, and such mystics as the English Rosicrucian Fludd were strong Paracelsians.(14)


The doctrine of contraries drawn from the old Greek philosophy, upon which a good deal of the treatment of Hippocrates and Galen was based—dryness expelled by moisture, cold by heat, etc.—was opposed by Paracelsus in favor of a theory of similars, upon which the practice of homeopathy is based. This really arose from the primitive beliefs, to which I have already referred as leading to the use of eyebright in diseases of the eye, and cyclamen in diseases of the ear because of its resemblance to that part; and the Egyptian organotherapy had the same basis,—spleen would cure spleen, heart, heart, etc. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these doctrines of sympathies and antipathies were much in vogue. A Scotchman, Sylvester Rattray, edited in the "Theatrum Sympatheticum"(15) all the writings upon the sympathies and antipathies of man with animal, vegetable and mineral substances, and the whole art of physics was based on this principle.


Upon this theory of "mumia," or magnetic force, the sympathetic cure of disease was based. The weapon salve, the sympathetic ointment, and the famous powder of sympathy were the instruments through which it acted. The magnetic cure of wounds became the vogue. Van Helmont adopted these views in his famous treatise "De Magnetica Vulnerum Curatione,"(16) in which he asserted that cures were wrought through magnetic influence. How close they came to modern views of wound infection may be judged from the following: "Upon the solution of Unity in any part the ambient air . . . repleted with various evaporations or aporrhoeas of mixt bodies, especially such as are then suffering the act of putrefaction, violently invadeth the part and thereupon impresseth an exotic miasm or noxious diathesis, which disposeth the blood successively arriving at the wound, to putrefaction, by the intervention of fermentation." With his magnetic sympathy, Van Helmont expressed clearly the doctrine of immunity and the cure of disease by immune sera: "For he who has once recovered from that disease hath not only obtained a pure balsaamical blood, whereby for the future he is rendered free from any recidivation of the same evil, but also infallibly cures the same affection in his neighbour . . . and by the mysterious power of Magnetism transplants that balsaam and conserving quality into the blood of another." He was rash enough to go further and say that the cures effected by the relics of the saints were also due to the same cause—a statement which led to a great discussion with the theologians and to Van Helmont's arrest for heresy, and small wonder, when he makes such bold statements as "Let the Divine enquire only concerning God, the Naturalist concerning Nature," and "God in the production of miracles does for the most part walk hand in hand with Nature."


That wandering genius, Sir Kenelm Digby, did much to popularize this method of treatment by his lecture on the "Powder of Sympathy."(17) His powder was composed of copperas alone or mixed with gum tragacanth. He regarded the cure as effected through the subtle influence of the sympathetic spirits or, as Highmore says, by "atomicall energy wrought at a distance," and the remedy could be applied to the wound itself, or to a cloth soaked in the blood or secretions, or to the weapon that caused the wound. One factor leading to success may have been that in the directions which Digby gave for treating the wound (in the celebrated case of James Howell, for instance), it was to be let alone and kept clean. The practice is alluded to very frequently by the poets. In the "Lay of the Last Minstrel" we find the following:


and in Dryden's "Tempest" (V, 1) Ariel says:


From Van Helmont comes the famous story of the new nose that dropped off in sympathy with the dead arm from which it was taken, and the source of the famous lines of Hudibras. As I have not seen the original story quoted of late years it may be worth while to give it: "A certain inhabitant of Bruxels, in a combat had his nose mowed off, addressed himself to Tagliacozzus, a famous Chirurgein, living at Bononia, that he might procure a new one; and when he feared the incision of his own arm, he hired a Porter to admit it, out of whose arm, having first given the reward agreed upon, at length he dig'd a new nose. About thirteen moneths after his return to his own Countrey, on a sudden the ingrafted nose grew cold, putrified, and within few days drops off. To those of his friends that were curious in the exploration of the cause of this unexpected misfortune, it was discovered, that the Porter expired, neer about the same punctilio of time, wherein the nose grew frigid and cadaverous. There are at Bruxels yet surviving, some of good repute, that were eye-witnesses of these occurrences."(18)


Equally in the history of science and of medicine, 1542 is a starred year, marked by a revolution in our knowledge alike of Macrocosm and Microcosm. In Frauenburg, the town physician and a canon, now nearing the Psalmist limit and his end, had sent to the press the studies of a lifetime—"De revolutionibus orbium coelestium." It was no new thought, no new demonstration that Copernicus thus gave to his generation. Centuries before, men of the keenest scientific minds from Pythagoras on had worked out a heliocentric theory, fully promulgated by Aristarchus, and very generally accepted by the brilliant investigators of the Alexandrian school; but in the long interval, lapped in Oriental lethargy, man had been content to acknowledge that the heavens declare the glory of God and that the firmament sheweth his handiwork. There had been great astronomers before Copernicus. In the fifteenth century Nicholas of Cusa and Regiomontanus had hinted at the heliocentric theory; but 1512 marks an epoch in the history of science, since for all time Copernicus put the problem in a way that compelled acquiescence.

Nor did Copernicus announce a truth perfect and complete, not to be modified, but there were many contradictions and lacunae which the work of subsequent observers had to reconcile and fill up. For long years Copernicus had brooded over the great thoughts which his careful observation had compelled. We can imagine the touching scene in the little town when his friend Osiander brought the first copy of the precious volume hot from the press, a well enough printed book. Already on his deathbed, stricken with a long illness, the old man must have had doubts how his work would be received, though years before Pope Clement VII had sent him encouraging words. Fortunately death saved him from the "rending" which is the portion of so many innovators and discoverers. His great contemporary reformer, Luther, expressed the view of the day when he said the fool will turn topsy-turvy the whole art of astronomy; but the Bible says that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, not the Earth. The scholarly Melanchthon, himself an astronomer, thought the book so godless that he recommended its suppression (Dannemann, Grundriss). The church was too much involved in the Ptolemaic system to accept any change and it was not until 1822 that the works of Copernicus were removed from the Index.

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Osler, William. 2006. The Evolution of Modern Medicine. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

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