Paracelsus Presents His Theory of Disease Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Paracelsus rejected the dominant medical and scientific thinking of his day, arguing that disease was locatable within the body and was caused by external factors that disrupted body chemistry. He also argued against medicine’s reliance on the work of ancient physicians and instead for methods of direct observation. He advocated concepts such as the mind-body connection, the power of suggestion, and the therapeutic presence of the physician.

Summary of Event

Paracelsus made contributions to modern medicine that can be appreciated only when one understands the times in which he lived. The Middle Ages was an era ravaged by wars and widespread social and economic chaos. Health was precarious, and poverty, ignorance, and poor sanitation and hygiene contributed to epidemics that raged throughout Europe. God was considered the source of almost everything that happened: Disease was believed to be God’s punishment for sin, and epidemics were blamed on demons or, in some cases, Jews. Medicine;Switzerland Paracelsus

Engraving of an alchemist’s busy, chaotic laboratory.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Engraving of an alchemist and his work space.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Occultism, mysticism, superstition, and astrology dominated medical practice; magical potions, herbs, bloodletting, charms, and prayers—the treatments of the day—were administered according to the position of the planets. Wounds were packed with moss, and suppuration (the development of infection) was considered essential to wound healing. Even though the Renaissance had begun at the end of the fourteenth century, it had little impact on science initially. Dogmatism was entrenched, knowledge was stagnant, and observation and experimentation were discouraged. Medical education consisted of studying ancient texts by Galen (129-199) and Avicenna (980-1037), who were regarded as almost infallible. After the Roman Empire collapsed and the Middle Ages began in Europe, ancient Greco-Roman classical manuscripts were preserved by the Arab world. Avicenna’s writings on Greco-Arabian medicine were translated from Arabic into Latin in the sixteenth century and dominated medical education for six centuries after his death. Education;Medical

Galen, the chief source of ancient medical writings, was scientific in many ways, but he also was superstitious; he worshiped Aesculapius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine, and believed in dreams, prophecies, and what would now be considered absurd folk remedies. The Hippocratic concept of disease was central to his teaching. According to Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 b.c.e.), disease was caused by an imbalance in the four humors, or body fluids—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—which Galen related to the classical doctrine of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water. (The Greco-Roman element “earth” was later expanded to include new elements—mercury, salt, and sulfur.) Each humor was associated with a different emotion: sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), melancholy (black bile), and choleric (yellow bile). Treatment required restoring the natural balance in these humors. Paracelsus was the first to challenge the humoral theory of disease entrenched in medical education.

Paracelsus was given the name Philippus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim when he was born in 1493. Because Humanists of the day often Latinized their names, Hohenheim later called himself Aureolus, from the Latin “golden” (crown), and Paracelsus, which may be a Latinization of Hohenheim or may mean “surpassing Celsus,” a famous first century Roman physician. His father, Wilhelm of Hohenheim, was a physician to the poor in Einsiedeln, where Paracelsus was born.

After his mother died, the young Paracelsus and his father moved to Villach, a lead-mining community in Tirol, where his father practiced alchemy Alchemy and taught in a school for mining and metallurgy. Paracelsus studied the basics of chemical analysis at the mining school and learned medicine, astrology, and alchemy from his father. (Alchemy, the study of secrets hidden in metals by nature, was the chemistry of the day. Its intent was to refine metal into purer states, with the goal of transforming base materials into gold.) In Tirol, Paracelsus became interested also in miner’s disease (silicosis).

The young Paracelsus attended several universities in Europe but did not earn a degree, a possible cause of resentment by the medical establishment. He gained practical experience as a barber-surgeon in the army of the Spanish king Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) in 1515, and in the German Peasants’ War in 1525 German Peasants’ War (1524-1526)[German Peasants War (1524-1526)] in Salzburg, where he later lectured to barber-surgeons. In his surgical practice throughout Europe, he insisted that wounds be kept clean and drained and denied the need for suppuration in wound healing. Physicians of his day had little respect for the new barber-surgeons, but Paracelsus’s growing reputation for “miraculous cures” led to his appointment in 1526 or 1527 as town physician of Basel, where he was appointed to the faculty of medicine at the university.

Contrary to the current practice of relying on the ancients and lecturing in Latin, he offended the authorities by lecturing in the vernacular Swiss-German dialect. He publicly demonstrated his contempt for classical medicine by burning the works of Avicenna and Galen. His colleagues hated his innovations and forced him to flee Basel in 1528, not long after his appointment. He never gained another academic post and wandered throughout Switzerland, Austria, and Bavaria for many years, studying diseases and preaching his theories. He wrote numerous works on medicine, science, and philosophy during this time.

Paracelsus taught that disease essentially was related to chemical malfunctions in the body arising from external causes rather than to an imbalance of body humors. He stressed the specificity of disease: Every disease was a different entity with a specific location in the body, a specific external cause, and a specific remedy. In contrast to his contemporaries, who valued the logic of ancient physicians, Paracelsus valued observation. He was the first to recognize the connection between goiter (thyroid enlargement) and cretinism (the congenital thyroid deficiency that results in deformity and mental deficiency), and his clinical descriptions of miner’s disease, syphilis, and hospital gangrene are brilliant. Syphilis;Paracelsus on

His experience with alchemy convinced him that minerals had specific healing properties, and he introduced many new mineral remedies (such as calomel) and advocated mineral baths. His treatment of syphilis with internal doses of mercury compounds foreshadowed therapy with the drug Salvarsan, which became the standard treatment for syphilis in the early 1900’, and he was the first to make tincture of opium (laudanum). He proposed classifying diseases according to the drugs that cured them.

Alchemy, astronomy, philosophy, and ethics were the pillars of his new medicine. His thinking, a curious mixture of modern experimentalism and old ideas—the occult, superstitions, alchemy, and astronomy—represented all the contradictions of his era. He never was able to separate magic from science. His colossal conceit, violent temper, and utter contempt for his fellow physicians made many enemies and won him few converts in his day, but after his death, his disciples, who came to be known as Paracelsians, spread his ideas throughout Europe and gained wide acceptance.


Although unable to influence his own generation, Paracelsus had a significant impact on the next generation and on the future of medicine. His acceptance of the folk belief that “what makes a man ill also cures him,” or “like cures like,” persists into the twenty-first century in homeopathic medicine. He bridged the gap between medicine and surgery, advocating conservative treatment of wounds and chronic ulcers. His rejection of traditional medicine reduced the hold of Galenic medicine and opened the way to inquiry and experimentation in medicine.

His understanding of the importance of chemistry in nature and medicine advanced the application of chemistry in therapeutics. He contributed to the modern understanding that human beings are made of the same elements as the universe—salts, sulfur, and mercury—and relate to the universe as microcosm to macrocosm.

The influence of Paracelsus continues through the current “quiet revolution” in health care, in which many are questioning conventional therapy and turning to alternative practitioners and alternative medicines and therapies. Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) was profoundly influenced by his writings as well and wrote an influential biographical sketch of his life and work.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Rev. ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2002. Scholarly research describing the impact of Paracelsus’s philosophy and work. Copious footnotes, no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobi, Yolande, ed., and Norbert Guterman, trans. Paracelsus: Selected Writings. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Useful anthology of direct quotations from Paracelsus’s works. Illustrated with 148 woodcuts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jung, Carl G. “Paracelsus” and “Paracelsus the Physician.” In The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966. Jung’s insights into the essence of Paracelsus remain valuable. The second, longer essay is one of the best short introductions in English to Paracelsus’s thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paracelsus and Franz Hartmann. The Prophecies of Paracelsus: Occult Symbols and Magic Figures with Esoteric Explanations and The Life and Teachings of Paracelsus. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner, 1973. A comprehensive, two-books-in-one account (the second “book” was first published by Hartmann in 1887) of the life and thought of Paracelsus, highlighting his mysticism and occult leanings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stillwell, John Maxson. Paracelsus: His Personality and Influence as Physician, Chemist, and Reformer. Belle-Fourche, S.Dak.: Kessinger, 1997. An overview of Paracelsus’s early life and medical theories and ethics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weeks, Andrew. Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997. Explores myths regarding Paracelsus’s view of nature and scientific orientation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Gerhild Scholz, and Charles D. Gunnoe, Jr., eds. Paracelsian Moments: Science, Medicine, and Astrology in Early Modern Europe. Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2002. A wide-ranging anthology that includes an essay about his biography as written by his detractors, the role of gender in Paracelsus’s model of truth, and a study of Renaissance representations of magic and demonology. Illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.

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