In the year 1526 there appeared a new lecturer on the platform at the University at Basel—a small, beardless, effeminate-looking person—who had already inflamed all Christendom with his peculiar philosophy, his revolutionary methods of treating diseases, and his unparalleled success in curing them. A man who was to be remembered in after-time by some as the father of modern chemistry and the founder of modern medicine; by others as madman, charlatan, impostor; and by still others as a combination of all these. This soft-cheeked, effeminate, woman-hating man, whose very sex has been questioned, was Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541).

To appreciate his work, something must be known of the life of the man. He was born near Maria-Einsiedeln, in Switzerland, the son of a poor physician of the place. He began the study of medicine under the instruction of his father, and later on came under the instruction of several learned churchmen. At the age of sixteen he entered the University of Basel, but, soon becoming disgusted with the philosophical teachings of the time, he quitted the scholarly world of dogmas and theories and went to live among the miners in the Tyrol, in order that he might study nature and men at first hand. Ordinary methods of study were thrown aside, and he devoted his time to personal observation—the only true means of gaining useful knowledge, as he preached and practised ever after. Here he became familiar with the art of mining, learned the physical properties of minerals, ores, and metals, and acquired some knowledge of mineral waters. More important still, he came in contact with such diseases, wounds, and injuries as miners are subject to, and he tried his hand at the practical treatment of these conditions, untrammelled by the traditions of a profession in which his training had been so scant.

Having acquired some empirical skill in treating diseases, Paracelsus set out wandering from place to place all over Europe, gathering practical information as he went, and learning more and more of the medicinal virtues of plants and minerals. His wanderings covered a period of about ten years, at the end of which time he returned to Basel, where he was soon invited to give a course of lectures in the university.

These lectures were revolutionary in two respects—they were given in German instead of time-honored Latin, and they were based upon personal experience rather than upon the works of such writers as Galen and Avicenna. Indeed, the iconoclastic teacher spoke with open disparagement of these revered masters, and openly upbraided his fellow-practitioners for following their tenets. Naturally such teaching raised a storm of opposition among the older physicians, but for a time the unparalleled success of Paracelsus in curing diseases more than offset his unpopularity. Gradually, however, his bitter tongue and his coarse personality rendered him so unpopular, even among his patients, that, finally, his liberty and life being jeopardized, he was obliged to flee from Basel, and became a wanderer. He lived for brief periods in Colmar, Nuremberg, Appenzell, Zurich, Pfeffers, Augsburg, and several other cities, until finally at Salzburg his eventful life came to a close in 1541. His enemies said that he had died in a tavern from the effects of a protracted debauch; his supporters maintained that he had been murdered at the instigation of rival physicians and apothecaries.

But the effects of his teachings had taken firm root, and continued to spread after his death. He had shown the fallibility of many of the teachings of the hitherto standard methods of treating diseases, and had demonstrated the advantages of independent reasoning based on observation. In his Magicum he gives his reasons for breaking with tradition. "I did," he says, "embrace at the beginning these doctrines, as my adversaries (followers of Galen) have done, but since I saw that from their procedures nothing resulted but death, murder, stranglings, anchylosed limbs, paralysis, and so forth, that they held most diseases incurable. . . . therefore have I quitted this wretched art, and sought for truth in any other direction. I asked myself if there were no such thing as a teacher in medicine, where could I learn this art best? Nowhere better than the open book of nature, written with God's own finger." We shall see, however, that this "book of nature" taught Paracelsus some very strange lessons. Modesty was not one of these. "Now at this time," he declares, "I, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Bombast, Monarch of the Arcana, was endowed by God with special gifts for this end, that every searcher after this supreme philosopher's work may be forced to imitate and to follow me, be he Italian, Pole, Gaul, German, or whatsoever or whosoever he be. Come hither after me, all ye philosophers, astronomers, and spagirists. . . . I will show and open to you ... this corporeal regeneration."[1]

Paracelsus based his medical teachings on four "pillars" —philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and virtue of the physician—a strange-enough equipment surely, and yet, properly interpreted, not quite so anomalous as it seems at first blush. Philosophy was the "gate of medicine," whereby the physician entered rightly upon the true course of learning; astronomy, the study of the stars, was all-important because "they (the stars) caused disease by their exhalations, as, for instance, the sun by excessive heat"; alchemy, as he interpreted it, meant the improvement of natural substances for man's benefit; while virtue in the physician was necessary since "only the virtuous are permitted to penetrate into the innermost nature of man and the universe."