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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Educational Material

Unit 8 - Alchemy and Chemistry in the Renaissance


2.2 Case Scenario

Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician and alchemist of the German Renaissance. He was one of the most influential medical scientists in early modern Europe.

After a brief period as a medical student in Italy, he travelled all over Europe and beyond as a military surgeon with the Venetian army, visiting Russia, Arabia and Egypt along the way. Mixing with people from many cultures, he gained considerable knowledge of several folk medicine traditions. ‘I have not been ashamed’, he wrote, ‘to learn from tramps, butchers and barbers’. These influences led him to reject much of university-taught medicine. It is evident from the writings of Paracelsus that he was familiar with the chemical processes in use in the mines and metallurgical laboratories of the country in which he lived. His knowledge of the chemistry of his time was extensive and well assimilated. The principal chemical authorities extant during his life were the early Greek philosophers of whom Pliny was the most important compiler, and the works written by or attributed to - for many were apocryphal- the Arabians Gheber and Avicenna, the Italian (?) Arnaldus de Villanova, the German Albertus Magnus, the English man Roger Bacon, and the Spaniard Raimundus Lullus (or Lully). It is evident that he was familiar with and influenced by the often fantastic speculative theories respecting the nature of matter and the origin of metals.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the medical revolution of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is also credited as the father of toxicology

He changed his name to Paracelsus (‘equal to Celsus’) to indicate that he wanted to rival ancient medical authorities such as Galen and Celsus. He rejected Galen’s claim that health and disease were controlled by the four humours and told doctors to study nature and develop personal experience through experiment.

On the other hand, he continued to subscribe to all kinds of folk beliefs such as gnomes, spirits and fairies.

Paracelsus also had some training in alchemy, from which he picked up the principle that metals were the key elements which made up the universe, and that they were subject to control by God, the ‘great magician’ who created nature.

Paraelsus argued that the body was a chemical system, which had to be balanced not only internally, but which also had to be in harmony with its environment. On the basis of this idea, he introduced new chemical substances into medicine, for instance the use of the metal mercury for the treatment of syphilis.

In 1526 he was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Paracelsus overthrew convention by publicly burning the books of Ibn Sina and Galen. He also invited ordinary citizens to his lectures, which he gave wearing an alchemist’s leather apron rather than an academic gown.

Paracelsus was one of the first medical professors to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. He pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. Paracelsus believed in the four Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water. His medical theory was based on the notion that earth is the fundamental element of existence for humans and other living things.

Paracelsus believed that earth generated all living things under the rule of three principles: salt, sulfur,

and mercury. He therefore believed these substances to be very potent as chemical reactants, as poisons, and as medical treatments.

Finally, Paracelsus believed in the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone (which he sometimes claimed to possess) was supposed to cure all ills and to enable the transformation of any metal into gold.

Such a stone, it was believed, would be the strongest chemical reactant and the strongest medicine possible.

From his study of the elements, Paracelsus adopted the idea of tripartite alternatives to explain the nature of medicine, taking the place of a combustible element (sulphur), a fluid and changeable element (mercury), and a solid, permanent element (salt). The first mention of the mercury-sulphur-salt model was in the Opus paramirum dating to about 1530. Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases (Pagel, 1958). He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt, and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He demonstrated his theory by burning a piece of wood. The fire was the work of sulphur, the smoke was mercury, and the residual ash was salt. Paracelsus also believed that mercury, sulphur, and salt provided a good explanation for the nature of medicine because each of these properties existed in many physical forms. The tria prima also defined the human identity.

Salt represented the body; mercury represented the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties); sulphur represented the soul (the emotions and desires). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease. With every disease, the symptoms depended on which of the three principals caused the ailment. Paracelsus theorized that materials which are poisonous in large doses may be curative in small doses; he demonstrated this with the examples of magnetism and static electricity, wherein a small magnet can attract much larger metals (Webster, 2008).

He was probably the first to give the element zinc (zincum) its modern name, in about 1526, likely based on the sharp pointed appearance of its crystals after smelting (zinke translating to pointed; in German). Paracelsus invented chemical therapy, chemical urinalysis, and suggested a biochemical theory of digestion (Waite, 1894). He used chemistry and chemical analogies in his lessons to medical students and to the medical establishment, some of who found them objectionable (Borzelloca, 2000).

Paracelsus in the beginning of the sixteenth century had unknowingly observed hydrogen as he noted that in reaction when acids attack metals, gas was a by-product (Rigden, 2003). Later, Théodore de Mayerne repeated Paracelsus’s experiment in 1650 and found that the gas was flammable. However neither

Neither Paracelsus nor De Mayerne proposed that hydrogen could be a new element.

He stated that the “miners’ disease” (silicosis) resulted from inhaling metal vapours and was not a punishment for sin administered by mountain spirits. He was the first to declare that, if given in small doses, “what makes a man ill also cures him” —an anticipation of the modern practice of homeopathy.

Paracelsus is said to have cured many persons in the plague-stricken town of Stertzing in the summer of

1534 by administering orally a pill made of bread containing a minute amount of the patient’s excreta he had removed on a needlepoint. Paracelsus was the first to connect goitre with minerals, especially lead, in drinking water. He prepared and used new chemical remedies, including those containing mercury, sulfur, iron, and copper sulfate, thus uniting medicine with chemistry, as the first London Pharmacopoeia, in 1618, indicates.

Paracelsus exalted claims for himself and his abrasive personality often brought him into conflict with civil authorities. His methods of trial and error and observation led him to reject the use of sacred relics as medical treatment. It brought him into conflict with religious authorities. His calls for reformation of the medical profession offended medical authorities. Paracelsus held an academic post only once, and it lasted only a year. Although he wrote a great deal, only one of his manuscripts was published in his lifetime. Most of his manuscripts were left in a variety of cities and were published several years after his death. Within these manuscripts are inconsistencies and contradictions. Paracelsus never established any strong school of thought or medical practice. He did, however, influence future generations of iatrochemists physicianchemists, iatro being Greek for “physician”), who continued to apply chemistry in medical practice questions. His new methods were very controversial, and in 1538 he was exiled from Basel. He died in 1541 in Austria.

Paracelsus, in fact, contributed substantially to the rise of modern medicine, including psychiatric treatment. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works (De Vries, Spruit, 2017).

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