VII. FROM PARACELSUS TO HARVEY
All his writings aim to promote progress in medicine, and to hold before the physician a grand ideal of his profession. In this his views are wide and far-reaching, based on the relationship which man bears to nature as a whole; but in his sweeping condemnations he not only rejected Galenic therapeutics and Galenic anatomy, but condemned dissections of any kind. He laid the cause of all diseases at the door of the three mystic elements—salt, sulphur, and mercury. In health he supposed these to be mingled in the body so as to be indistinguishable; a slight separation of them produced disease; and death he supposed to be the result of their complete separation. The spiritual agencies of diseases, he said, had nothing to do with either angels or devils, but were the spirits of human beings.
He believed that all food contained poisons, and that the function of digestion was to separate the poisonous from the nutritious. In the stomach was an archaeus, or alchemist, whose duty was to make this separation. In digestive disorders the archaeus failed to do this, and the poisons thus gaining access to the system were "coagulated" and deposited in the joints and various other parts of the body. Thus the deposits in the kidneys and tartar on the teeth were formed; and the stony deposits of gout were particularly familiar examples of this. All this is visionary enough, yet it shows at least a groping after rational explanations of vital phenomena.
Like most others of his time, Paracelsus believed firmly in the doctrine of "signatures"—a belief that every organ and part of the body had a corresponding form in nature, whose function was to heal diseases of the organ it resembled. The vagaries of this peculiar doctrine are too numerous and complicated for lengthy discussion, and varied greatly from generation to generation. In general, however, the theory may be summed up in the words of Paracelsus: "As a woman is known by her shape, so are the medicines." Hence the physicians were constantly searching for some object of corresponding shape to an organ of the body. The most natural application of this doctrine would be the use of the organs of the lower animals for the treatment of the corresponding diseased organs in man. Thus diseases of the heart were to be treated with the hearts of animals, liver disorders with livers, and so on. But this apparently simple form of treatment had endless modifications and restrictions, for not all animals were useful. For example, it was useless to give the stomach of an ox in gastric diseases when the indication in such cases was really for the stomach of a rat. Nor were the organs of animals the only "signatures" in nature. Plants also played a very important role, and the herb-doctors devoted endless labor to searching for such plants. Thus the blood-root, with its red juice, was supposed to be useful in blood diseases, in stopping hemorrhage, or in subduing the redness of an inflammation.
Paracelsus's system of signatures, however, was so complicated by his theories of astronomy and alchemy that it is practically beyond comprehension. It is possible that he himself may have understood it, but it is improbable that any one else did—as shown by the endless discussions that have taken place about it. But with all the vagaries of his theories he was still rational in his applications, and he attacked to good purpose the complicated "shot-gun" prescriptions of his contemporaries, advocating more simple methods of treatment.
The ever-fascinating subject of electricity, or, more specifically, "magnetism," found great favor with him, and with properly adjusted magnets he claimed to be able to cure many diseases. In epilepsy and lockjaw, for example, one had but to fasten magnets to the four extremities of the body, and then, "when the proper medicines were given," the cure would be effected. The easy loop-hole for excusing failure on the ground of improper medicines is obvious, but Paracelsus declares that this one prescription is of more value than "all the humoralists have ever written or taught."
Since Paracelsus condemned the study of anatomy as useless, he quite naturally regarded surgery in the same light. In this he would have done far better to have studied some of his predecessors, such as Galen, Paul of Aegina, and Avicenna. But instead of "cutting men to pieces," he taught that surgeons would gain more by devoting their time to searching for the universal panacea which would cure all diseases, surgical as well as medical. In this we detect a taint of the popular belief in the philosopher's stone and the magic elixir of life, his belief in which have been stoutly denied by some of his followers. He did admit, however, that one operation alone was perhaps permissible—lithotomy, or the "cutting for stone."
His influence upon medicine rests undoubtedly upon his revolutionary attitude, rather than on any great or new discoveries made by him. It is claimed by many that he brought prominently into use opium and mercury, and if this were indisputably proven his services to medicine could hardly be overestimated. Unfortunately, however, there are good grounds for doubting that he was particularly influential in reintroducing these medicines. His chief influence may perhaps be summed up in a single phrase—he overthrew old traditions.
To Paracelsus's endeavors, however, if not to the actual products of his work, is due the credit of setting in motion the chain of thought that developed finally into scientific chemistry. Nor can the ultimate aim of the modern chemist seek a higher object than that of this sixteenth-century alchemist, who taught that "true alchemy has but one aim and object, to extract the quintessence of things, and to prepare arcana, tinctures, and elixirs which may restore to man the health and soundness he has lost."
THE GREAT ANATOMISTS