Paracelsus’ Impact on Medicine During the Renaissance Era


Jessica Blake, Emily Aronstam, Amy Buchanan


March 16, 1999


Paracelsus, born Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim in 1493 was a "Swiss physician and alchemist whose work marks the beginning of the emergence of the science of chemistry from alchemy" (1). Paracelsus made his impact on the medial field by discovering many diseases common in today’s society as well as new medical treatments derived from nature.

Born in Einsiedeln , Switzerland , Paracelsus was first introduced to the medical field through observing his father, a practicing physician. During his teen years, Paracelsus left home and began to travel around Europe while attending various German universities as a "traveling scholar." After receiving a degree in medicine from Ferrara in 1515, Paracelsus continued to travel across Europe while treating patients and spreading his medical knowledge. "As an adult…[Paracelsus] picked up practical medical knowledge by working as a surgeon in a number of the mercenary armies that ravaged Europe in the seeming endless wars of the period" (3). In addition, while in the city of Basil, Paracelsus served as a public health officer as he was always looking for ways to assist the common public.

Living during the Renaissance Era, a period when many new medical discoveries were being made, Paracelsus was continuously looking for new, better, and different ways of practicing medicine. This period was heavily influenced by what is called "Renaissance humanism" which refers to "the fascination with antiquity in all of its aspects" (3). During this time, many ancient texts became available, such as the teachings of Galen, which prompted Renaissance philosophers to base much of their research on that of ancient truths. "In short, with the corrected translations of ancient authors…it was thought possible to restore the real truths of both Aristotelian natural philosophy and Galenic medicine [during this time period]" (3).

Paracelsus used many of Galen’s findings as a foundation for much of his work, however, Paracelsus tended to disagree with most of Galen’s beliefs as he revolted against traditional medicine. To prove his point that ancient authors were no longer correct in their medical findings, Paracelsus made an elaborate production of burning the books of Galen and Avicenna on the steps of the University of Basel .

Paracelsus and his followers came to have completely different beliefs than that of ancient researchers. One subject of disagreement dealt with the ancient system of elements, namely Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. "The Paracelsians argued that nowhere in the Holy Scripture is there reference to the creation of fire and therefore it cannot be considered an element" (3). Paracelsus also argued that the work of the ancients was flawed due to the extensive use of mathematical logic. He tended to believe more in finding truths from the human body itself and relied more on self-knowledge than the use of mathematical tools such as weights and measures. Another difference dealt with where diseases originated. Galen thought that "diseases were caused by an imbalance of bodily ‘humors’…and that they would be cured by bloodletting and purging" (7). As a contrast, Paracelsus believed that disease originated from within and that mineral remedies would allow the body to defend itself. Another topic of debate arose over th

In order to perform many of the practices in which he believed in Paracelsus looked to magic and astrology although he focused much of his attention to the subject of chemistry. In addition, Paracelsus and his followers were seeking to bring a new world system based on the macrocosm-microcosm analogy which also called for the extensive use of chemistry (3). The macrocosm-microcosm theory involved the universe and man (macrocosm and microcosm, respectively) and the belief that "man is the world in little" (6). It is also noted that much of Paracelsan theory strongly encouraged the use of experimentation. Much of Paracelsus’ beliefs were based around the fact that "all medication is in the earth…" and it was just a matter of experimenting with natural remedies in order to find the most effective ways of dealing with illnesses (2). Once Paracelsus found new remedies one of his beliefs was that experience was what determined the validity of his discovery meaning that "if a thing stands the test of experience,

Paracelsus also made many developments in the field of alchemy which is defined as a "medieval forerunner of chemistry, esp. seeking to turn bast metals into gold or silver" (8). With this came the belief that all bodies are composed of three basic substances; salt, sulfur, mercury. This matter theory stated that salt was the principle of solidity, sulfur was the principle of combustibility, and mercury was the principle of fluidity. Paracelsus believed that "alchemy should not be to produce gold, but to concoct medications to treat disease" (1). He was the first to apply scientific principles towards medicine and is also responsible for bringing alchemy and iatrochemistry together to form what is modern-day pharmacology. (Iatrochemistry dealt with preparing substances in the simplest ways, discovering medical properties of substances, and finding new substances with medicinal value (1). Because of this work, Paracelsus is known today as the "father of modern pharmacology" (1).

When looking back on the history of medicine it is easy to understand how far ahead of his time Paracelsus was. He died at an early age of forty-eight, before he has a chance to put his findings in writing. Because of this, there is still a lot that is unknown in regard to Paracelsus’ discoveries. He published few medical works and only one major text titled the Grosse Wundartzney. It wasn’t until after his death that physicians began to find his manuscripts and begin to publish his work. Although many of his exact ways of medicine are not used in today’s modern medicine, Paracelsus was a critical figure in the field of chemistry as well in the overall field of medicine.


Works Cited

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7. Paracelsus, Philippus Aureoles. Microsoft ® Encarta ® 98 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1997. Microsoft Corporation.
8.Complete Wordfinder. Reader’s Digest Oxford. Pleasantville , N.Y. , The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 1996.