Civilization Week 10 Paracelsus

Explain the significance of the person you read about for Lesson 48 in 100 words.

Although we were instructed to choose one of the better known characters (particularly Buffon, Harvey, Priestley, Euler, or Gray) I find myself drawn to a lesser known figure of history. He was a master alchemist, a doctor, the “Luther of physicians”, and as his most devoted followers nicknamed him the “German Hermes.” He was born in 1493 to the name Auroleus Phillipus Theostratus Bombastus von Hohenheim. This was a touch of an ironic title to be sure, but we’ll get back to that later. His father was a very well known physician of the time, known as the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. It was from his library Hohenheim started his dive into alchemy, surgery, and medicine. By the time he was sixteen he had become very well acquainted with these sciences. As a teenager he studied the works of Isaac Hollandus, which roused in him an ambition to develop a medicine superior to any of the time.

As Hohenheim grew he became stubborn and independent. He looked down on the ancient texts, choosing instead to to use his own experience and observation of the natural world to advance his studies. He studied at the university of Basel, received a degree in medicine from the university of Vienna, then continued on to receive his doctorate from the university of Ferrara. He stressed the importance of common sense and common language, and challenged the ideas of the past “fathers of medicine”. Speaking of which, this is where the irony of his given name springs from. You see, the name Auroleus referred to Aurus Cornelius Celsus, one of the most celebrated medical writers of the time. Around the time Hohenheim received his doctorate he gave himself the title Paracelsus (meaning greater than Celsus). You can see pride was something he was in no way lacking. Though in many ways he more than deserved this title, as he discovered many methods of science and medicine that have become standard practice in today’s world. He found that you can concentrate alcohol by freezing it out of his solution, he advocated carefully measured doses with regard to the drugs purity, he founded the discipline of toxicology, he gave the element zinc its name, and was the first to note that some diseases are psychologically based. But what he was most known for was denouncing Galen’s theory of the four humors, that being the body was made of only blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.

He spent his twenties living a nomadic life, wondering from country to country as a traveling doctor of sorts. He traveled through Germany, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In Russia he was captured by the Tartars and brought before the Grand Cham. In a twist of events the Grand Cham actually favored Paracelsus highly, and he was appointed to accompany the Cham’s son on an embassy from China to Constantinople. It was in this city legend tells Paracelsus was given something very special. It has many names: the supreme secret, the red teacher, the universal solvent, the philosophers stone, or as Paracelsus trademarked it: Alkahest. Many say it was only a myth, others say it was a rarely known chemical, some say its been lost to history, and some still search for it today. Anyway, on with the facts.

In his thirties he was given the honor of professorship at the university of Basel, but because of his radically prideful behavior (such as holding a public book burning of Galen’s literature) he didn’t maintain that title for long. After being denounced from Basel Paracelsus returned to his life of wondering. He met many doctors who insulted his abilities, but he turned the tables on them by curing several bad cases of elephantiasis. He spent the next ten years traveling and preforming cures that were amazingly advanced for the time. He traveled through Machren, Kaernthen, Krain, and Hungary, and finally landed in Salzburg Austria where he met the Prince Palatine, a great lover of the secret science of alchemy. He was offered by the prince a position as the royal alchemist, but sadly fate had other plans for him. Paracelsus died in 1541, after a short illness (or as some say after a scuffle with assassins sent by the orthodox medical agency). His body was lay to rest at the St Sebastian graveyard, but his documented studies and literature have long outlived him.

I had quite a good time researching this particular fella, and have decided to buy a book of his writings. Fun fact for any anime fans out there, Paracelsus was the inspiration for Edward and Alphonse’s father in the manga and anime Fullmetal Alchemist.

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