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 III
The conflicts with his medical colleagues. The denunciations of Paracelsus to the medicine of the time.
The revolutionary reforms which Paracelsus tried to promote in the field of medicine particularly upset the medical authorities of the time. Same was the case with many doctors who disliked or mistrusted his healing capabilities.The number of people who hated or simply disliked him was much greater than the number of his followers. They did not forgive Paracelsus’ fierce criticism of the medicine and doctors of the time. No doubt, Paracelsus railed against academic doctors like an authentic Swiss mercenary soldier. He was blunt in his criticism of them: “You have entirely deserted the path indicated by nature and built up an artificial system, which is fit for nothing but swindling the public and preying upon the pockets of the sick… Your art does not consist of curing the sick. Instead, you are focused on swindling the poor, brining yourself into the favor of the rich and gaining admittance to the kitchens of the noblemen of the country. You live upon imposture. The aid and abetment of the legal professionals enable you to carry on your impostures and evade punishment by the law. You poison the people and ruin their health. You swore to be diligent in your art; but how could you do so, as you possess no art, and all your boasted science is nothing but an invention to cheat and deceive? You denounce me because I do not follow your schools; but your schools cannot teach me anything worth knowing. You belong to the tribe of snakes, and I expect nothing but poison from you. You do not spare the sick. How could I expect that you would respect me, while I cut down your income by exposing your pretensions and ignorance to the public?” (1)
Paracelsus insistently denounced the healing art of his time as a mix of superstitions and errors, which were conveniently incorporated into the educational systems, and were disserted with great eloquence. He evidenced the emptiness hidden behind the impressive Greek and Latin terms. (2) Universities had little to teach him, especially after he finished his formation within them. He criticized the medical colleges and its professors unrelentingly. (3) He could not understand how many of the professors would never leave the academies and would hardly deign to touch a patient. Neither did he agree with the kind of medicine they stood for, which included treatments typical of the times like potent laxatives, purgatives, leeches, suckers and scarification. (4) Even H.P. Blavatsky said that the secret of his happy and magical treatments (as they were then called) partly consisted of an extreme disdain for the qualified scientific authorities of his time. (5)
Due to all this, Paracelsus was persecuted, criticized and mistreated, as he was believed to be a mad man, an unreliable doctor, a sorcerer, a witch doctor, or even a heretic. There were few occasions where he had to flee from a place suddenly and secretly, renouncing his earthly possessions, in order to avoid prison or death due to persecutions by the local medical authorities, who typically conspired with the politicians. (6)
Without a doubt, the doctors were the professional collective that Paracelsus had the most serious conflicts with and had to confront most directly. He suffered the persecutions by this collective in almost all the main towns he went through. There were records of such harassment in Tubingen, Freiburg, Strasburg, Basel, Colmar, Nuremberg and Vienna.
He would end up abandoning these towns due to the pressure from the local medical collective. Even though the gravest conflict he had with the doctors was in Basel, as we will describe next, the confrontations he had in Baden, Strasburg and Nuremberg were not very pleasant either.
In 1525 Paracelsus was called to Baden to cure Marquis Phillip from diarrhea. He had been declared as terminally ill by the doctors. Paracelsus cured him within a short time under the attentive and close observation of the doctors of the court. The doctors, angry at the ridicule to which Paracelsus had exposed them and with the desire to discredit and send him away, tricked the marquis by saying that Paracelsus had perniciously taken ownership of their treatment. The marquis trusted them and fired Paracelsus without paying him anything. Paracelsus then decided to go to Tubingen. Once again, the envy of the local doctors of his successes led to the denunciations of his heterodox methods, and once again he was forced to abandon the city. (7)
Later on, Paracelsus lived in Strasburg between the end of 1526 and 1527. Despite being in a generally tolerant city, and despite being part of city’s surgeons and merchants guild, many doctors from the city ended up confronting him. As in other places, Paracelsus achieved medical notoriety through his many healings, few of which were considered as miracles by some people. Alsace was one of such regions where he gained lot of support and popular veneration. This probably resulted in the opposition from the local doctors. The medical collective, with the desire to wrong him, challenged him to a public debate on anatomy with Wendelin Hock, one of the best surgeons in the city. We do not know how the debate ended, but all the sources point out that it considerably damaged the professional perspectives of Paracelsus in Strasburg, and that this event, along with the pressure from the medical opposition, was decisive in his determination to abandon this city. (8)
Similarly, the doctors would challenge him again in Nuremberg between 1529 and 1530, although this time not to a debate but to a greater defiance: they proposed, with the intention to ridicule him, that he cure patients considered incurable. Specifically, they proposed him to cure fifteen lepers. Even though Paracelsus was able to cure nine of them, which was a great triumph, it only increased the hostility of the doctors against him. (9) Meanwhile, in Nuremberg, more than in any other place, his literary work was aimed directly against the recognized doctrines and governing opinions, challenging the censors there. This made it difficult for him to settle down in the city, as well as close any access to the medical professionals, who were very united against him. In fact, this professional alliance against him was already formed even before Paracelsus arrived to the city, since his reputation as a heterodox and a conflictive doctor preceded him by several months in his forced travels. (10) His direct challenge of the censors of the city by publishing a forbidden book, also forced him to flee the city in a hurry. (11)
But the escape that was the most talked about was the one he had to do in Basel, where he lived between 1527 and 1528, and where his conflicts with the local doctors occurred within the University. In March of 1527, Paracelsus moved about 70 miles from Strasburg to Basel at the request of the already mentioned editor and humanist Johannes Froben. At that moment, that Swiss city had around 10,000 inhabitants and was a centre for publications, pharmaceutical commerce and a meeting place for all kinds of religious reformers and humanists. Prestigious and influential reformists of the city like Froben, well-known humanists like Erasmus, the Amerbach brothers, Hedio, Gerbelius, and the important Protestant reformer Oecolampadius, were able to collectively name Paracelsus as the official municipal doctor and a professor at the University of Basel. Supported by this strong circle of influential humanists, Paracelsus found a great opportunity in Basel to promote his medical system, while receiving a very worthy salary, even if this was only for a few months. (12)
However, his refusal to explain the thesis of the official orthodox medicine in that education centre led him to win the dislike and increasingly high opposition from the rest of the faculty and the medical collective of the city. In fact, this opposition manifested in the appointment of Paracelsus as professor. The University was dominated by the Catholics. His election and proclamation as a professor came from the city’s municipal board, which was dominated by the Protestants and which had previously nominated him to be the municipal doctor of Basel. This title entailed him the right to be a professor at the city’s University. Without being consulted before the nomination, the University was forced to accept Paracelsus’s nomination. Thus, the University acted in a controversial manner against him from the beginning: it did not allow him to formally register as a professor nor honor him with a visit, as the tradition required. (13)
Paracelsus also refused to submit himself to the formal act of reception as an outside graduate of the University of Basel, perhaps because he did not have the diploma that the University needed to recognize to allow him to teach classes. In addition, he defied the professors with an iconoclastic public manifesto titled “Intimatio”, in which he promised to teach practical and theoretical medicine for two hours every day based on of his original experiences, instead of following teachings of Hippocrates, Avicenna, and Galen (renowned at that time as theoretical academics). (14) During his inaugural class he stated: “The laces of my shoes contain more wisdom than Galen and Avicenna together, and my beard has more experience than their entire academia”. (15) A few weeks later, he burned the academic books of those authors in the traditional Saint John’s bonfire, demonstrating very clearly that they were not valid anymore to teach medicine. The professors at the University of Basel reacted by withdrawing his right to use the classrooms to teach and to sponsor doctorate candidates. His qualification to teach the classes was also questioned.
But, in spite of all this, he was able to continue the classes, thanks to the support he received from the municipal authorities. (16) He addressed them saying: “They think that I have neither the right nor the power to lecture in the University without their knowledge and consent; and they note that I explain my art of medicine in a manner not yet usual and being so instructive for everyone”. (17)
Months later, he had to insist to the same authorities: “It has come to my knowledge that doctors and other physicians who reside here have commented unbecomingly in the streets and cloisters on the status I received through your kindness. This does great damage to my practice and my patients. The faculty and the dean boast that your appointment of me, a foreigner, is without right and merit. With the help of God, I have cured invalids, whom the ignorance of other doctors almost maimed, and I think that I should deserve honor instead of infamy. Your austere, honorable wisdom has appointed me as a physician and a professor; you are my superiors, masters, disciples to be doctors as it behooves for a full professor”. (18)
However, his opponents did not stop harassing him. One Sunday morning, an announcement appeared nailed to the door of the cathedral and other prominent places in the city of Basel. This was a crude satire against Paracelsus and was presumably written by the Galen himself speaking from the hell and titled, “The shadow of Galen against Theophrastus, or better, Cacophrastus”. The pamphlet had ignominious phrases, such as the following: “You vulture, who dresses with the feathers you have stolen! Your deceitful and poor fame will not last long. What do you want to teach? Your stupid mouth ignores the foreign words and you are not even capable of presenting your work, which you have stolen. What do you want to do, imbecile, now that you have been uncovered from part to part, inside and out, and now that you have been rightfully advised to take a rope and hang yourself?” (19) This was a direct attack on the teachings of Paracelsus and on him as person. He demanded the authorities of the University to uncover the authors of the satire against him. He also sent a letter of complaint to the municipal board of Basel demanding that they look for the people responsible for the writing. But on seeing that neither of them paid any attention to him, he decided in the fall of 1527 to go to Zurich and resolve his conflict with the University through the higher authorities of the country. (20) However, he was not successful there either. While he was in Zurich, he learned about the death of his best friend, protector, patient, editor and humanist Froben in Basel. Paracelsus’ enemies accused him of not having been able to cure Froben well, even though he died in an accident. (21) When Paracelsus returned to Basel in the month of November, he had his days already numbered in that city, where he had few friends left. He found himself buried under a shower of anonymous letters which even accused him of Froben’s homicide and denounced his famous medicine Laudanum.
A conflict with a municipal magistrate, whom Paracelsus had accused of being ignorant and unfair, precipitated his forced escape from Basel. Paracelsus had denounced a church dignitary – the canon of the city cathedral and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the city – whom he had cured of an acute abdominal pain with some pills. The patient had promised Paracelsus some enormous fees (100 florins) for this cure. But at the end, the patient refused to maintain his promise. Paracelsus, who dared not to charge anything from the poor patients, was very demanding with the rich patients. Since he had already been cheated on earlier occasions, he wanted to denounce the case in the court, as he would do so on future occasions. (22) The magistrate granted him only a small retribution, very far from the one promised by the patient. Paracelsus became angry and publicly defamed the judge. He said: “How can you understand the value of my medicine if your method is to vilify the doctors! (…) The sick and the law professionals judge the medical science the same way they would judge the shoemaker’s trade!” (23) A judicial order required the arrest of Paracelsus, since it was not allowed to insult judges. For that, he had to flee from Basel quickly before he was detained, confiding his possessions to his pupil Oporinus. (24) It was January or February of 1528.