Zurich Paracelsus Project

Work in Progress

The Life of Theophrastus of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim (1493/94-1541) was a Swiss physician, philosopher theologian of Swabian origin. Introducing new ideas contrasting to Medieval medicine, which still based on Greek and Arabic medicine, he fostered the development of medicine, alchemy and pharmacology in the Renaissance. As a lay theologian he responded to the then emerging church reformation by developing his own peculiar concepts, so that he is considered to be a radical reformer.

Paracelsus being a later nickname, Theophrastus of Hohenheim was born near the Devil's Bridge, not far from the Benedictine abbey at Einsiedeln, Switzerland, of which his mother was a bondswoman. His father William, being an illegitimate offspring of the noble Bombasts of Hohenheim from Swabia, moved in 1502 to Villach, Carinthia, to be there town physician. Paracelsus received his early training from his father and from several clergymen including Johannes Trithemius and took, about in 1515, a doctorate in medicine and surgery at Ferrara, Italy. After years of travel through the better part of Europe and service as an army surgeon, Paracelsus attempted to settle in Salzburg in 1524 as a praciticing physician. There he wrote his first theological writings on St. Mary, on the Holy Trintiy an on the faults of Christian worship. In the turmoils accompanying the Peasants' Wars, which had reached the city, Paracelsus took sides with the rebels and had to flee abruptly after their abatement in 1525, leaving behind most of his belongings.

In 1526 Paracelsus arrived at Strasbourg where he acquired citizenship and joined the surgeons' guild. In nearby Basle he successfully treated he famous printer Johannes Froben. As a consequence, in 1527, he was appointed town physician and lecturer to the city and university of Basle, reaching so the the climax of his career. Filled with the glowing vision of a new medicine based on experience in contrast to book knowledge, Paracelsus presented a series of lectures wherein he broke with practically every traditional concept. Being undiplomatic, unrelenting and quarrelsome, Paracelsus soon broke with the university officials, who anyway had never accepted his appointment, and even with his studies. Again, Paracelsus had to flee town in 1528, after a short period, which had begun as a most promsing reform of Medieval medicine.

After the Basle debacle, Paracelsus was again subjected to endless wanderings, which in fact were to continue to the end of his life. He roamed Southern Germany, stayed in Nuremberg in 1529 and in Beratzhausen in 1530. During this time, he wrote tracts on syphilis and one of his most well-known works, the "Paragranum", where he developed the concept of the four pillars of medicine: natural philosophy, astronomy, alchemy and medical virtue. Although meant to portray universal concepts, these writings are steeped in bitterness and accusations, that his mission was misunderstood. Paracelsus's situation even worsened, as in 1530 the printing of his books was forbidden by the officials of Nuremberg, a means by which he had hoped to reach a broader audience.

Paracelsus turned his way again to Switzerland and in 1531 remained for several months in the city of St. Gall. There he wrote another important medical work, his "Opus paramirum", which he devoted to the well-known humanist and physician Joachim von Watt, called Vadian, who was moreover mayor of the town. It was also in St. Gall, where Paracelsus observed the then appearing Halley's Comet. As comets were generally regarded as heavenly omens, Paracelsus wrote a booklet "Vßlegung des Commeten", being a short theological commentary. Contrary to his expectations, Vadian gave Paracelsus the could shoulder. As a result of all these ongoing dissapointments, Paracelsus even considered to give up medical praxis at all. He retired to the nearby Appenzell country and confined himself to theological writing and preaching.

In 1534 Paracelsus went to the country of Tyrol, stopping at Innsbruck and Sterzing, where he encountered the outbreak of plague, and finally Meran. In 1535 he gave a consultation to the abbot of Pfäfers, a little spa town in the Swiss Rhine Valley. The written records of this meeting belong to the few remaining documents in Paracelsus's own handwriting. His greatest literary success was the publication of his "Chirurgia magna" (Great Surgery) in Augsburg in 1536, one of the very few printed books during his lifetime. In 1537 Paracelsus is staying at Eferding near Linz, Austria, where he is writing on "Astronomia magna", his main philosophical work.

In 1538 he was back in Carinthia, the former abode of his father. So to speak in a last creative effort, he tried to summarize and render more precisely his key ideas. The country officials promised to further the printing of these "Carinthian writings", but reneged on doing so. Already in 1540, Paracelsus reports to be sick. He died in Salzburg on September 24th, 1541. The cause of his death was presumably a chronic mercury intoxication as a late effect of his alchemical experiments.