Paracelsus – Part One – His early life and career

ParacelsusPhilippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast(us) von Hohenheim

Part One – His early life and career

Bartholomew A Ochia

The beginning of the sixteenth century ushered in an era of free thought, an epoch when people could express novel ideas and conceptions without fear of retribution from established authorities. The mental turpitude that characterised the Middle Ages was being brushed aside with alacrity. Martin Luther fought to overthrow the barrier of ecclesiastical hierarchy; Philip Melanchthon and Thomas Erastus advocated free speech; Desiderius Erasmus pioneered biblical criticism; and Nicolaus Corpenicus, the Polish-German astronomer, declared the sun to be the centre around which all the planets of our solar system revolved. In the fields of science there was some noticeable struggle of the new against the old, of reason against sophistry, and of cold logic against belief in antiquated ideas.

Among the greatest thinkers of that period was one Philippus Theocrastus Bombast(us) von Hohenheim, who was born on the 26th of November 1493 in a village called Maria- Einsiedeln, near the city of Zurich, in Switzerland. He became an itinerant German physician and alchemist who established the role of chemistry in medicine and allied sciences, including nutrition, and published a clinical description of syphilis in 1530 and Die Grosse Wundartzney (“The Great Surgery Book”) in 1536.

Early Life

Paracelsus was the only son of William Bombast von Hohenheim, a German physician and chemist of moderate means. Theophrastus, as he was then called, was a small boy when his mother died. His father then moved to Villach in Southern Austria. There the boy attended the Bergschule, founded by the wealthy Fugger family of merchants and bankers of Augsburg, where his father taught chemical theory and practice. The young students were trained there as overseers and analysts for mining operations in gold, tin and mercury, as well as iron, alum and copper sulphate ores.

In his early youth Paracelsus obtained instructions from his father, who taught him the rudiments of alchemy, surgery and medicine. He always honoured the memory of his father whom he regarded not only as his father, but also as a friend and instructor. While serving as an apprentice in the Fugger mines, the young Paracelsus learned, from talks among miners, of metals that ‘grow’ in the earth, watched the seething transformations in the smelting vats and observed the characteristics of diseases associated with men who worked in the mines. Later on he was to write the first book ever composed on occupational diseases – his famous tract on the diseases common to miners. Thus, Paracelsus gained early in his life an insight into metallurgy and chemistry that, obviously, laid the foundations of his later remarkable discoveries in the field of chemotherapy.

Paracelsus continued his studies under the tuition of the monks of the convent of St Andrew situated in the Savon valley under the guidance of the learned bishops Eberhardt Baumgartner, Mathias Scheydt and Mathias Schacht. At the age of 16, he was sent to study at the University of Basel, where he was instructed by the celebrated Johann Trithemius, the abbot of St Jacob at Wurzburg, one of the greatest adepts of magic, alchemy and astrology. It was under this instructor that his talents for the study of occultism were especially cultivated and brought into practical use. It was his love for the occult sciences that led him to enter the laboratory of Sigismund Fugger, also a celebrated alchemist, from whom he learned many a valuable secret.

In 1507, at the age of 14, Paracelsus joined the many vagrant youths who swarmed across Europe in the late Middle Ages, seeking famous teachers at one university after another. During the next five years he was said to have attended the universities of Basel, Tubingen, Vienna, Wittenberg, Leipzig, Heidelberg and Cologne, but was disappointed with them all. Later, in his writings he wondered how “the high colleges managed to produce so many high asses”. This rejection of traditional education and medicine upset his contemporaries. But he was unrepentant, writing, “The universities do not teach all things, so the doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers and such outlaws, and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveller…Knowledge is experience”. According to him, the rough and ready language of the innkeeper, barber and teamster had more real dignity and commonsense than the dry-as-dust scholasticism of Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna, the recognised Greek and Arab medical authorities of his day.

Paracelsus is aid to have taken up the name ‘Paracelsus’, perhaps to boost his ambition to greatness, since the name translates into ‘beyond and after Celsus’. Celsus was a renowned Roman physician of the first century.

Paracelsus is said to have graduated from the University of Vienna with the baccalaureate in medicine in 1510 at the age of 17. He was, however, delighted to find the medicine of Galen and the mediaeval Arab teachers criticized in the University of Ferrara, Italy, where, he always insisted, he received his doctorate degree in 1516 [University records for that year are said to be missing]. At Ferrara he was free to express his rejection of the prevailing view that the stars and planets controlled all the parts of the human body. Against this astrological determinism, he declared: “Man is a star. Even as he imagines himself to be, such he is. He is what he imagines…Man is a sun and a moon and a heaven filled with stars…Imagination is creative power…Medicine uses imagination strongly fixed. Fantasy is not imagination, but the frontier of folly…because man does not imagine perfectly al all times…Arts and sciences are uncertain, though, in fact, they are certain and, by means of imagination, can give true results. Imagination takes precedence over all.” Finally, he dismissed the astrologers, saying: “There are many fools in the world, and each one has his own hobby”.

Surely, a man of this nature could not settle for long in any seat of learning, and so, soon after his degree, Paracelsus began to travel a great deal. He set out upon many years of wandering, where possible mostly on foot, through almost every country in Europe, including England, Ireland and Scotland. He travelled to the Netherlands, participating in the Netherlands Wars as an army surgeon, a lowly occupation at the time. Then he visited Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Russia, and was held captive by the Tartars, escaped into Lithuania, went south into Hungary and Italy, where again he served as an army surgeon in 1521, and participated in many military expeditions. Ultimately, his wanderings brought him to Egypt, Arabia and the Holy Land and, finally, to Constantinople. It is said that he even visited India. Paracelsus while in captivity was, probably, instructed in the secret doctrine of occultism as taught in the East. His subsequent writings about the Elements, or spirits of nature, were a reflection of those of some Eastern adepts.

Everywhere he went he sought out the most learned exponents of practical alchemy, not only to discover the most effective means of chemical treatment, but also – and even more important – to unravel “the latent forces of Nature” and how to use them. He wrote: “He who is born in imagination discovers the latent forces of Nature…Besides the stars that are established, there is yet another – Imagination – that begets a new star and a new heaven.” Neither was his quest for useful information confined to physicians, surgeons and alchemist. As noted above, he often associated with executioners, barbers, shepherds, Jews, gypsies, midwives and fortune-tellers. He was usually seen in the company of teamsters and vagabonds on the highways and at public inns, to the delight of his enemies who bitterly reproached and vilified him.

Height of his career

After travelling for ten years, practising his art as a physician, studying or teaching, Paracelsus returned in 1524 to Villach to find that his fame for many miraculous cures had preceded him. He travelled to Germany where he became a celebrity because of the wonderful cures that he performed.

In 1527 Paracelsus, then aged 33 years was, on the recommendation of Oecolampadius, appointed the Basel city physician and a professor of physics, medicine and surgery at the University of Basel by the City Council. The two positions attracted a considerable salary. Students from all over Europe flocked into Basel to see and hear the Great Paracelsus. His lecture programme of June 5 1527 invited not only students, but also anyone and everyone. These open invitations scandalised and incensed the University authorities that compared him to Martin Luther, who ten years previously had nailed his Theses on Indulgences to the doors of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche for every one to see. As to make matters worse, at the traditional bonfire on St John’s Day, June 24, 1527, surrounded by students, Paracelsus publicly burned the Canon of Avicenna, the Arab “Prince of Physicians”, and books of the Greek physician Galen, in front of the University. Needless to say, the faculty, including some students, hated him for it. They called him Cacophrastus and wrote an insulting poem about him that purported to have been written by Galen and sent from Hell. His enemies again recalled how Luther, just six-and-half years before at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, had burned the papal bull that threatened excommunication. Later he wrote: “The enemies of Luther are to a great extent composed of fanatics, knaves, bigots, and rogues. Why do you call me a ‘Medical Luther’? You do not intend to honour me by giving me that name, because you despise Luther. Those whom he causes to suffer in their pockets are his enemies. I leave it to Luther to defend what he says, and I shall be responsible for what I may say. That which you wish to Luther you wish also to me; you wish us both to the fire.”

Paracelsus was a Christian in the true meaning of the word, and he always tried to support the doctrines he taught by citations from the Bible. He asks: “What is a philosophy that is not supported by spiritual (internal) revelation? Moses did not attempt to teach physics. He wrote in a theological sense calculated to impress the feelings and awaken the faith of the simple-minded, and perhaps he may not have understood physics himself. The scientist, unlike the theologian, does not put any trust in his feelings, but believes only in his experiments, because physical science deals with phenomena and not with faith.” Nevertheless, he asserted that faith “is a luminous star that leads the honest seeker into the mysteries of Nature. You must seek your point of gravity in God, and put your trust into the honest, divine, sincere, pure, and strong faith, and cling to it with your whole heart, soul, sense, and thought – full of love and confidence. If you possess such a faith, God will not withhold His trust from you, but He will reveal His works to you credibly, visibly and consolingly”. He regarded prayer, faith and imagination as the foundation and cornerstone of wisdom. But with all his piety Paracelsus was no bigot. He was an enemy of hypocrisy, ceremonial service and pious ostentation, saying: “If you pray publicly, to what purpose does it serve? It will only be the beginning and the cause of idolatry, and therefore it has been prohibited by Christ.” It has been said that his books were placed in the Index Expurgatorius.

Despite his bombastic blunders, Paracelsus reached the pinnacle of his turbulent career at Basel. His name and fame spread throughout the known world, and his lecture hall was crowded to overflowing.

His lectures were not – like those of his colleagues – mere repetitions of the opinions of Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna, the exposition of which formed the sole occupation of the professors of medicine of the times. He stressed the healing power of nature and raged against those methods of treating wounds, such as padding with moss or dried dung that prevented natural drainage. The wound must drain, he insisted for, “If you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself”. He attacked venomously many other medical malpractices of his time and jeered mercilessly at worthless pills, salves, infusions, balsam, electuaries, fumigants and drenches, much to the delight of his student-disciples. He declared that science be based upon “our own perception of truth, and not upon mere belief or opinion”. He dismissed as his disciples those who attempted to cure the sick by means of what they learned from books, and without using their own judgement, saying that they were akin to the foolish virgins mentioned in the Bible, who wasted the oil from their lamps and tried to borrow oil from others. But those “whose minds are open for the reception of the truth, who are charitable to all, who love their art for its own sake, and seek to do the will of God, without any thought of self” he regarded as his disciples.

Paracelsus’ triumph at Basel lasted less than a year, because he had made too many enemies. By the spring of 1528 he clashed head-on with all the druggists and apothecaries whom he tried to bring under his own jurisdiction. The physicians and professors, jealous of his successes in teaching medicine and curing diseases, joined in the persecution under the pretext that his appointment as a professor was without their approval, and that he was a complete stranger with dubious credentials as a doctor.

Worst of all, Paracelsus vilified the city magistrates for deciding in favour of one Canonicus Cornelius of Lichtenfels whom he cured after other physicians had given him up to die and who afterwards treated him ungratefully. These opposing forces were getting too hot and, sensing imminent threat for dear life, he had to flee suddenly and in the dead of night.

After this event Paracelsus alone and broke resumed his itinerant life. He wandered towards Colmar in upper Alsace, about 50 miles north of Basel, and came to Esslingen and Nuremberg in 1529 and 1530, respectively. In Nuremberg the regular physicians denounced him as a charlatan and impostor. To refute their accusation he cured, in a short time and without asking for a fee, a man with elephantiasis. However, this success did not change his fortune, and he continued wandering. In 1530 he visited Noerdlingen, Munich, Regensburg, Amberg and Meran. 1531 saw him in St Gall, and 1533 in Zurich. During these wanderings he stayed at various places with friends. Such leisurely travel allowed him time to revise old manuscripts and write new theses. With the publication of Die grosse Wundartzney in 1536 he made an outstanding comeback; the book restored, and even extended, the fabulous reputation he had earned at Basel in his heyday. He became wealthy and was sought after by royalty.

In May 1538 at the zenith of his second period of fame he returned to Villach to see his old father only to learn that he had died four years previously. On the 24th of September 1541 Paracelsus himself died mysteriously after a short illness (at the age of 48 years and three days) in a small room of the White Horse Inn, Salzburg, where he had taken up an appointment under the prince-archbishop, Duke Ernst of Bavaria. He was interred in the graveyard of St Sebastian Church. The story goes that Paracelsus, during a banquet, had been treacherously attacked by the hirelings of certain physicians who were his sworn enemies. During the attack he fell upon a rock and fractured his skull; and this consequently caused his death a few days later.

At the time of his death Paracelsus had little or no worldly possessions except his valuable writings. Paracelsus had many keen followers who regarded him as the most remarkable person of all times. However, because he proclaimed his new and hitherto unacceptable ideas unambiguously, uncompromisingly and harshly in order to overthrow the old beliefs and principles of orthodox physicians and philosophers, he attracted to himself hordes of enemies, who denounced and vilified him. A review of his writings, published in Part Two of this  website, will show that Paracelsus was not just ahead of his time but that he was one of the greatest and sublime characters of all times.

The enemies of Paracelsus stopped at nothing in their search to discredit him, accusing him of being a drunk, and of vanity and boasting. Paracelsus up to his twentieth birthday never took any intoxicating drinks. From that age on, he might have had a few drinks occasionally, as was the habit in those days. However, taking into consideration the quantity and quality of work produced by Paracelsus, all within a period of fifteen years, it is hard to believe that he was a drunk. Paracelsus was not vain but proud of his attributes and accomplishments. He justly asserted his rights as he saw himself surrounded by ignorance, misjudged and misrepresented, by maintaining that the value of his teachings would be appreciated in due course. He wrote: “I know that the monarchy [of mind] will belong to me, that mine is the honour. I do not praise myself, but Nature praises me, for I am born of Nature and follow her”. Nonetheless, he recognised human shortcomings by saying: “God has put a mark upon us…to show that we have nothing to pride ourselves about, that nothing comes within the reach of our full and perfect understanding…and that our own knowledge and power amount to very little indeed.”

Personal vanity and vulgar display of wealth were the custom of physicians of that time. And those were the attributes exposed and denounced by Paracelsus as ignorance of the ’learned’. It is then easy to understand why some of his detractors accused him of looking upon himself as more learned than others. The fact was that Paracelsus was far superior in medical skill to all his contemporaries. He performed apparently miraculous cures on patients previously declared incurable. The list of those patients included eighteen princes. He also treated many poor patients freely, to the jealousy of professional physicians who claimed their fees relentlessly. For most of his labour the most common reward everywhere was ingratitude. Most of the moderately wealthy and the rich patients he literally snatched from the jaws of death paid him little or nothing, to the delight of his enemies.

Another aspect of Paracelsus that angered his enemies was his blunt style of writing. It is true that Paracelsus did not always write in a refined and polite manner. But that style of writing was adopted universally in those times. Paracelsus was unapologetic, saying: “I am a man who does not speak to every one only that which might please him, and I am not used to giving submissive answers to arrogant questions. I know my ways and I wish not to change them; neither do I change my nature”.

To those who accused him of vagrancy, Paracelsus had this to say: “I went in search of my art, often incurring danger to life. I have not been ashamed to learn that which seemed useful to me even from vagabonds, executioners and barbers…A lover will go a long way to meet the woman he adores: how much more will the lover of wisdom be tempted to go in search of his divine mistress!” He continued: “The knowledge to which we are entitled is not confined within the limits of our own country, and does not run after us, but waits until we go in search of it…We must seek for knowledge where we may find it, and why should the man be despised who goes in search of it? Those who remain at home may live more comfortably, and grow richer than those who wander about; but I neither desire to live comfortably, nor do I wish to become rich. Happiness is better than riches, and happy is he who wanders about, possessing nothing that requires his care. He who wants to study the book of Nature must wander with his feet over its leaves…Nature is studied by examining the contents of her treasure-vaults in every country. Every part of the world represents a page in the book of Nature, and all the pages together form the book that contains her great revelations.”

For those who did not understand him, Paracelsus advocated the very superstitious beliefs he passionately tried to destroy. For example, he condemned the superstitious practices of the stargazers, instead of encouraging them. He wrote: “The planets and stars on the sky neither build up a man’s body, nor do they endow him with virtues or vices, nor any other qualities whatsoever…It is said that a wise man [allegorically] rules over the stars; but this does not mean that he rules over the stars in the sky, but over the powers that are active in his own mental constitution, and which are symbolised by the visible stars in the sky.

Paracelsus did not write or read much. He claimed never to have read a book in ten years. According to the testimony of his disciples, he dictated his works ex-tempore. When he died his entire worldly possession comprised a Bible, a Bibliographical Concordance, a Commentary to the Bible and a written book on Medicine. He regarded reading as unnecessary, saying: “Reading never made a physician. Medicine is an art, and requires practice…I began to study my art by imagining that there was not a single teacher in the world capable to teach it to me, but that I had to acquire it myself. It was the book of Nature, written by the finger of God, which I studied, not those of scribblers, for each scribbler writes down the rubbish that may be found in his head; and who can shift the true from the false? My accusers complain that I have not entered the temple of knowledge through the ‘legitimate door’. But which is the truly legitimate door, Galen or Avicenna or Nature? I have entered through the door of Nature: her light, and not the lamp of an apothecary’s shop, has illuminated my way”

The final point: Paracelsus wrote most of his books and taught his doctrines in German, instead of Latin, as was customary then. In so doing he started a reformation in science akin to that of Luther in the Church. By rejecting the use of Latin as the official language he gave impetus to the emergence of free thought in science and contributed towards the eventual demise of the old beliefs in authorities. Who knows whether Paracelsus would ever have achieved, and imparted so much knowledge, if he had allowed his brain to be cluttered by the endless formalities that went with the then scientific education?


1 Harman, F (1896) The Life of Philippus Theocrastus Bombast of Hohenhein known by the name of Paracelsus and the Substance of his Teachings. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Turner & Co Ltd, 1896.

2 Debus, AG (1965) The English Paracelsians. London: Oldbourne Book Co. Ltd.

3 Pagel, W (1958) An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel (Switzerland): S. Karger AG.

4 Hargrave, J (1951) The Life and Soul of Paracelsus. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd.