Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim Biography (1493-1541)

physician, chemist, philosopher

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was a Renaissance physician/scientist who helped revolutionize the theory andpractice of medicine. One of his most important contributions was the application of chemistry to medicine, stressing the use of chemical medications rather than the then more popular "magic potions" based on herbs and other substances. Paracelsus maintained an ongoing feud throughout his life with the medical establishment, who considered him a heretic and usurper of their traditions. The word "bombastic" comes from his original name and is an ironic tribute to his aggressive and combative personality.

Paracelsus was born in 1493 in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm of Hohenheim, was a physician and most likely gave Paracelsus his first instruction in medicine. At the age of 16, he enrolled at the University at Basel in Germany to study alchemy, surgery, and medicine. But Paracelsus was alreadyrevealing his restlessness and disdain for academic traditions. He soon leftthe university and became a traveling student, studying and working in Germany, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Russia, to name a few. As a result,he never received a complete formal education. He eventually arrived in Italy, where he became an army surgeon and his notoriety for bringing about wonderful cures began.

Paracelsus returned to Basel in 1527 at the age of 32. His cure of the famousprinter Johann Froben from a leg infection without the need for amputation led to his appointment as professor of physics, medicine and surgery at the university. However, it did not take the antagonistic Paracelsus long to raisehis colleagues' ire. In his lectures, he began to denounce the revered Romanphysician Galen and his school of thought, going as far as to make a grandiose display of burning this ancient master's written works. Intimidated and angered by Paracelsus, his colleagues were more upset that Paracelsus could often cure people when they could not.

While his colleagues believed that many illnesses were incurable, Paracelsus,a true physician by nature and nurture, wrote, "God has not permitted any disease without providing a remedy." Relying on experimentation and empirical evidence from observing his patients, Paracelsus began a program of research to establish the application of chemistry to medicine. While most medicines ofhis day were based on plant and animal substances, Paracelsus believed in the curative powers of inorganic materials. As a result, a number of chemical substances, including sulfur, iron, arsenic, and potassium sulfate, became integral to his medical practice. The first to prescribe laudanum for a varietyof ailments, Paracelsus developed the concept of therapeutic dosages, emphasizing the need for moderate doses instead of the often toxic amounts given topatients at that time. He is also credited with working toward a systematic classification of chemical substances and for a method of detoxifying dangerous chemical compounds. Known for his management of wounds and chronic ulcers,Paracelsus's description of miners' disease as silicosis and tuberculosis wasone of the first occupational disease studies ever performed.

One of Paracelsus's most important contributions was his new concept of whatconstituted disease. Going against the ancient belief that disease resulted from an upset of humoral balance (based largely on a person's temperament), Paracelsus saw diseases as resulting from specific foreign agents or elements entering the body and causing dysfunction in specific areas of the body, whichis similar to the modern concept of disease. As a result, his approach was to treat patients for a specific disease agent instead of using non-specific,anti-humoral measures such as sweating, purging, and bloodletting.

When he was forced to leave the University of Basel in 1528, Paracelsus onceagain took up the life of a nomad, traveling throughout Germany, Switzerland,Bohemia and Austria. He usually stayed in any one place for only a few months, often being run out of town by the medical establishment. However, Paracelsus continued to write extensively on his beliefs and findings in both medicine, surgery, and philosophy. His most famous works included Paragranum(1530) and Opus paramirum (1531), which outlines his fundamental medical doctrine.

While Paracelsus remained an outcast in the medical profession, his fame andpopularity with the public grew. He befriended laborers, trades people, gypsies and other who were considered to be inferior. Known as a glutton and heavydrinker, his enemies berated his association with them and especially his inclination for revelry in lower-class taverns.

Paracelsus eventually grew disenchanted with his inability to establish a position of permanence in medicine. By 1538, he wrote, "If I were permitted to settle down, I would make peace and sit tight even if I were provoked." The Prince Bishop of Salzburg finally offered him asylum in 1540 and Paracelsus spent the rest of his life in a town that had once expelled him for siding withpeasants during the Peasants War of 1524-1526. True to his word, Paracelsus wrote little about medicine after his arrival and turned his attention to theology and philosophy. Still, rumors of miraculous cures performed by him spread throughout Europe. He died in September 1541. Even in death, controversy surrounded him. Some said he died of an overdose of a secret elixir of life that he supposedly carried in the pommel of his sword. His enemies attributed itto injuries he received in a tavern brawl.

Like most of his contemporaries, Paracelsus was not strictly scientific in all his beliefs. He placed great faith in many of the occult sciences such as astronomy and alchemy. However, his primary purpose always focused on helpingpeople. While alchemists at that time were looking for ways to turn substances into gold, Paracelsus directed them to "stop making gold; instead, find medicines." In the end, his most important admonition to the medical community of his day may have been his famous battle cry: "The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study."

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