A true Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
His life and his medical, religious and social work through Central Europe, Part I
From 1524 on, without ever stopping his pilgrimage, Paracelsus did not leave Central Europe, especially the German speaking territory, between Switzerland and Austria, Germany, the eastern region (presently France) of Alsace and the most alpine and northern part of Italy. The most northern part he visited at this stage was some undetermined point in Prussia, Germany; the most eastern point was Bratislava, in Slovakia; the most southern point was Saint-Moritz, in Switzerland; the most western point was Colmar, in Alsace. Between these four points he developed the main phase of his life, the best known, and in which he could unfold in a theoretical and practical way everything he had learned till then on his travels around Europe and bordering countries. Never ceasing to learn, during this last stage of his life of 17 very intense years – eighteen if we count the years since he had crossed the Alps to his father’s home in Villach in 1523 – he cured, taught, wrote the books and works we know and defended the most needy not regarding the confrontation from the political, religious, health and academic authorities of the time. It was precisely this confrontation and its resulting prosecution –at times even judicial, with even the danger of being sentenced to death – which marked his greatly imperative pilgrimage, trying to flee from his trackers. The main stages of this exhausting, long journey, which interestingly began and ended in the same city of Salzburg, (see chronological detail of his travels between 1524 and 1541 in Annexes) were the following:
Salzburg (Austria) (1524-1525), where he was able to settle as a doctor and where he stood out for his vehement struggle against the injustices of the social order of the time, especially the ones suffered by the poor peasants.
Strasburg (Alsace, France) (1526-1527), where he ended up obtaining citizenship rights. In those times it was a tolerant city, inhabited by a good number of reformists and humanists, serving as a refuge to the persecuted. Despite that, many doctors of the city ended up confronting him, probably due to the medical, cultural and social notoriety Paracelsus achieved.
Colmar (Alsace, France) (1528-1529), where he censored the improper use of common mercury to cure syphilis and wrote a book about this illness. Despite his initial good contacts with the local authorities, his ideas, which were perceived as controversial, dissuaded them from renewing his temporary permit and from allowing the publication of his book about Syphilis.
Nuremberg (Bavaria, Germany) (1529-1530), a great center of commerce, artists, artisans and religious reformers. In this city, more than in any other place, his literary work was directed against the recognized doctrines and opinions of governors, defying the local censors. For the first time he detached himself openly form the orthodox Lutherans who for him were to be condemned as much as the catholic papist.1
Saint Galen (Switzerland) (1531), where he finished writing his great Opus Paramirum, which contains his basic medical doctrines.
Vipiteno [Sterzing in German] (Trentino-Alto, Adigio, Italy) (1534), where he dedicated himself totally to the sick affected by the plague that was battering the city. When the plague passed, the local authorities asked him to abandon the city without taking into account the good humanitarian work done by him.
Pfafers (Switzerland) (1535), where he settled in a Benedictine monastery to finish his work on spas, and where he became fascinated by the healing powers of the water of the spas prepared in a subterranean laboratory.
Kromau (Mahren, Chequia) (1537), where he spent some time as a guest in a castle and took the opportunity to complete or expand many literary works, among them the one considered as the most important: Philosophia Sagax.
Vienna (Austria) (1537-1538), where he went to ask for help from King Ferdinand I, brother of Charles V, to publish his books. Even though the king initially accepted Paracelsus’ petition and even offered to introduce him to the medical team of the court the orthodox doctors ended up censuring Paracelsus, and the city editors refused to publish his books.
Salzburg (Austria) (1540-1541), where he had gone following the personal call from Ernest of Wittelsbach, the bishop prince of the city. Here he would finish this cycle of 17 years and his life of nearly 48 years. He died on September 24, 1541, lodged in the White Horse Hostel, under the shadow of the city castle where he finished some religious writings.
A great doctor who knew how to open a new era in the history of medicine
His untiring work as a doctor
Paracelsus never ceased practicing as a doctor, at least since he had ended his university studies. First, as seen in the last chapter, as a military doctor between 1515 and 1522, especially as a surgeon and, since 1522 with a profound experience acquired in the bloody battle field and in his pilgrimage around Europe; further, as an expert and very skillful doctoral candidate and as investigating alchemist doctor as well. He used to treat patients anywhere. He felt sympathy and had a soft spot for the sick, in particular for the handicapped sick.2 He cured poor peasants and rich people. He practiced as an official municipal doctor and even as a doctor of the royal court; also as a private doctor for all the towns and roads he traveled.
As a doctor of the court he could have practiced in Vienna, between 1537-1538, in the court of the king and Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand. Paracelsus declined the offer to be part of the official team of court doctors. He obtained the post of official municipal doctor in Basel, in 1527, even though his enemies, as can be seen later, would only allow him to occupy the position during the ten months from March of 1527 to January of 1528. Nevertheless, he continued healing and even opened medical centers with success in the cities where he remained the longest, as he did in Salzburg (Austria) in 1524.Here he was an affectionate and compassionate friend to his patients, and like a father he took care of the poorest people.3 In Tubingen (Germany), the following year, he attracted specially students who were anxious to learn his medicine4, and in Colmar (France), between 1528 and 1529, he was especially admired by the entire city and even its authorities.5
The list of cities and villas which recognized his capacities to heal would be endless; because he brought aid to multitude of sufferers from almost the entire Central Europe. And, even though he admitted he could not cure everything and incurable ills did exist,6 he carried out his medical work almost always with success. He performed incredible cures with ulcers.7 In fact, he specialized in the field of stomach diseases.8 However, he cured all kinds of diseases, including difficult and grave ones such as cancer, the plague, other various important plagues such as syphilis, leprosy, Huntington disease (also called Sydenham’s Chorea and historically referred to as Saint Vitus Dance9, and many more, some of which are considered incurable in present day.10 He performed miraculous cures for patients who had been described as incurable by the best doctors.11 For example, in Ingolstadt (Germany) in 1525 he cured a 23 year-old woman who was paralyzed from birth.12 In Nuremberg, four years later, he cured nine of the fifteen lepers of the city considered incurable.13 These are data documented in current archives.
Paracelsus also had many successes with his fight against some plagues he had to confront since his early youth. In those times the plagues and epidemics reportedly devastated the poor European populations, killing thousands or tens of thousands of people in some parts of the continent. Right from his youth when he worked as a military doctor in different wars (it is already mentioned how in the war military encampments, the emergence of cholera and typhus was frequent) Paracelsus tried to save the life of people threatened by these diseases. He often demonstrated a courage which contrasted with the majority of doctors, who preferred to abandon the city or zone when a severe plague would be declared. This occurred, for example, in Basel in 1527, precisely when Paracelsus arrived in the city for the first time. The professors of medicine in the university of Basel were absent during the plague, while he tried to help the people who could not flee the city. The same occurred in the midst of the summer of 1534 in Vipiteno (north of Italy). When Paracelsus arrived in the city, many city dwellers were abandoning it due to the plague. Despite the plague and despite his physical fragility by which he was already affected around those years, Paracelsus would visit the city, treat the disease and study it. During this period he wrote a book about the plague and he dedicated himself to the city under siege. But when the plague was over he was spurned by the authorities (mainly clergy) with insults, despite the good results he had obtained, and asked him to leave.14
Many of his “miraculous” cures were proven by scientists or humanists of the stature of Erasmus of Rotterdam or the Swiss editor Johaness Froben. Paracelsus managed to cure the leg of Froben in Basel and to avoid its amputation, as the doctors, who initially treated him, had foreseen. A few weeks after Paracelsus’ intervention, he was completely cured and was able to return to his activity as printer and editor. The success of the therapy was testified and gradually recognized by Froben’s friends, among them Erasmus and the influential Amerbach brothers. Precisely as a result of this healing, Erasmus expressed the desire to ensure the services of Paracelsus.15 Erasmus suffered from gout and from liver and kidney pain. A letter of this humanist has been kept, expressing gratitude for the medical attention Paracelsus gave him and asking him advice for his ailments.16
There were other important healings – so much for the healing itself as for the social prestige of the healed ones – who increased the number of legends about Paracelsus. In the introduction a reference was made to the fact that among his patients he had no less than 18 princes, among them Count Phillip I of Baden, whose case was declared terminal by the doctors and who Paracelsus healed in short time.17 He also treated, with success, high military hierarchs, like the main Marshal of Bohemia, Johann von der Leipnik, who lived in a castle in Kromau, near Brno, Moravia;18 eminent medical colleagues such as Doctor Albert Basa, the doctor of the King of Poland who traveled up to Austria especially to consult with him;19 honorable humanists such as the already mentioned Erasmus and Froben, and also Kaspar Hedio; and members in important ecclesiastic posts such as Abbess of Rottweil20 or, most important still, the Canon of the Cathedral of Basel, one of the richest and powerful of the city. When in the beginning of 1528 this canon fell ill, he offered 100 gold coins to the doctor who could heal him. Paracelsus cured him with a simple treatment: purgatives, strict diet and one regular dose of his famous laudanum.21