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 II
Use of medicines he himself elaborated
Laudanum was probably the most utilized medicine by Paracelsus. It was composed of white wine, saffron, clove, cinnamon and other substances in addition to opium. He was the first one to prepare it. He used it commonly to reduce any type of pain, from children’s pain provoked by the first teething to the typical pains produced by cancer and other terminal illnesses; for numbing, anxiety, treatment of diarrhea and to eliminate cough in all kinds of processes, from a simple flu to tuberculosis. Many of his followers thought laudanum could cure all illnesses, except leprosy.1
Paracelsus, naturally, as the skilled alchemist that he was, at least since 1524, used many other remedies –among them some of metallic origin; in fact, it was he who introduced these kinds of remedies. Almost all medicines he used he elaborated himself: ointments for the wounds of war, especially when in his youth he had to exercise as a doctor for different armies;2 pills of various components: on one occasion he fought against a very deadly plague in Vipiteno with some pills of bread rolls stained with infected faeces –a primitive system of inoculation learned from the Turks in Constantinople;3 a remedy against motion sickness which he called, “travelers salt”, which he invented when he had to cross England’s Canal;4 and even remedies against lice, which he prepared on one occasion when he himself was infected by these parasites while crossing Wallachia and Ukraine.5 In addition, he also learned how to use the healing power of water and natural springs. This he did especially in Bad Ragaz (Switzerland), when he spent a few months in Pfafers Abbey. He wrote a treatise about the therapeutic baths of this place, including precise indications and dietetic regulations, which represent one of the first documents of scientific balneology.6 More about this will be talked on later.
Paracelsus did not believe in the medicaments sold in the pharmacies of the time. Indeed they were not trustworthy. Some author has even dared to say that the pharmacy of the XV and XVI centuries was a repugnant kitchen because, in the preparation of remedies they even used “mummy powder”.7 Paracelsus could not have been more polite in his descriptions of these kinds of shops: “I do not take any medicines from apothecaries; their shops are just foul sculleries which produce nothing but foul broths.” And he concluded that the best medicines were found, not in any city, but in nature: “All nature is like one single apothecary’s shop, covered only with the roof of heaven”.8
His trust in nature had no limits and hence his heroic attempts to integrate his studies with those of medicine through botany and chemistry, and, as will be seen further, with cosmology as well. For him, study of nature was a pleasure. Following the botany which his father had taught him in the same fields and forests of the region where he lived his childhood, he went on many excursions throughout his life to study medicinal plants and minerals in many regions, mostly in Central Europe. In some of those outings he was accompanied by his medical students. This way, he was able to describe in his “Herbarium”, the occult properties of 36 plants as well as some minerals and precious stones.9 He was even able to use the healing power of some critters in contact with the human skin: on one occasion, he cured the swelling of a hand by wrapping it with live worms with much success.10
A great alchemist and researcher
More than as a botanist and biologist, his main research in the field of medicine was carried out as an alchemist. He was a great alchemist; not to obtain gold, although this possibility was at his reach, but to produce medicines. In his treatise titled The Archidoxes of Magic, he stated: “Alchemy does not consist in making gold and silver; the objective is to produce the sovereign essences and utilize them later to cure illnesses”.11 He considered alchemy as a fundamental means to his medical objectives. Therefore, one of the main purposes of his life was to demonstrate that doctors could cure making the most of the natural properties of the chemical remedies; this way, they could spare the sick patient the typical traumatic treatments of the time, like bleedings. Hence, he is considered the founder of medical chemistry or chemical medicine, iatrochemistry (science dedicated to the production of medicines), and the creator of the concept of chemotherapy.12 As an alchemist, Paracelsus demonstrated the identical chemical composition of man, earth and other heavenly bodies. He said that hydrogen, sodium, calcium, magnesium and iron were found in man as much as in the heavenly bodies. Indeed, he gave us important revelations about hydrogen, coming to know of its properties and nature accurately. He realized that it contained alkahest, alchemy’s universal solvent, by which all earthly bodies can be reduced to their primitive being, or original matter (ether).
Some authors, like the famous psychologist Jung, even state that Paracelsus was also a precursor of empirical psychology and psychological therapy to the extent that alchemy was not only the mother of chemistry, but the precursive phase of the present psychology of the unconscious as well.13 When he was very young, he was already interested in the so-called “mental illness”. After realizing that there was nothing written, till date about it, at least in the West, he himself wrote a book about this type of “illnesses” in 1520, when he was not even 30 years old.14 The psychologist Jung himself affirmed that for Paracelsus alchemy was also a philosophical procedure of personal transformation, i.e. a special way of yoga, as yoga points to a transformation of the state of mind.15 Paracelsus said that alchemy was not more than the art of turning the impure into pure through fire.
In fact, the alchemy of the west has always been closely related to hermeticism. It was the renaissance of humanism itself, influenced by the hermeticism of the time, which helped revive alchemy. Thus, Paracelsus met with historic and cultural contexts favorable for experimenting with this art or science. Cosimo de Medici, of Florence, asked the great philosopher Ficino to translate Greek works on hermeticism to Latin. Learned men and artists of the XVI century, among them Leonardo da Vinci, considered the knowledge of alchemy as desirable. Even the Pope Leo X, from the house of the Medici, had great interest in alchemy and other occult arts.16 Paracelsus’ father himself, besides being a doctor, had been a student of chemistry17 at a time when it also had connotations of being a student of alchemy. It is already mentioned that, practicing as a doctor, and under the attentive observation of his son, he prepared tinctures and essences and, distilled elixirs to cure illnesses.18 In the walks, Paracelsus undertook with his father, through the fields and forests, he not only acquired knowledge about plants, but about minerals as well. It was also mentioned earlier that his father taught him first and foremost, natural history and mining,19 and that he was able to expand this knowledge in the mining school of the famous merchants of the time, the Fuggers in Hutenberg, near Villach, who often visited him and his father. Further, it was also seen how the main teachers Paracelsus had were alchemists.
However, he learnt medical science not only from his teachers he had since childhood, but also from many other people as well. For example, when he passed through Constantinople in 1521, he learned the secret of the alchemical gold from a German alchemist called Salomon Trismosin, an expert in kabala and Egyptian magic. He was the one who gave Paracelsus the philosopher’s stone, according to Van Helmont, a follower of Paracelsus,. Three years earlier, in 1518, he had wanted to go through Spain, especially through the main cities of Andalusia, such as Granada, Córdoba, Sevilla where the remains of the Arab culture were still very fresh to take interest in the alchemical knowledge amassed by that culture.20 According to K. P. Kumar, the alchemical knowledge of Paracelsus brought him to discover the occult properties of matter as well as the origin of life, agni or cosmic fire.21
Attraction to spas and mines
In fact, Paracelsus continued searching for this alchemical knowledge all around Europe. Mines, as well as spas, were to him natural laboratories revealing the hidden properties and powers.22 It was especially after leaving Salzburg in 1525 that he felt very attracted by spas. First he visited the spas of Baden, Freiburg and Tubingen along the Danube River, especially in Goppingen, Wildbad, Liebenzell and Bade-Baden, where people went to take the health-giving elixir which also cured or alleviated convalescence.23 Here he studied the mineral waters of the region. As the expert alchemist that he was, Paracelsus knew the universal dissolvent potency of water completely. For him, water was the universal instrument of chemistry and natural philosophy, and the most important means for healing. He also believed that the earth held seminal properties, and that water, when it dissolves and ferments the earthy substances, as it occurs with fire, it produces all things and originates the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms.24 He wrote his main study or treatise about therapeutic baths in 1535 in Pfafers (Bad Regaz, Switzerland), and he dedicated it to the prince Abbot of the monastery of that place, Johann Jakob Russinger.25 This treatise would be used by experts until the XIX century. Before Pfafers, he had studied the water of St. Moritz and had praised the water spring of this city, which has acidic water (especially in August), and “drives away gout, and makes the stomach as strong in digestion as that of a bird that digests tartar and iron”.26 In Pfafers-Ragaz he was fascinated by the healing powers hidden within the water of the spa prepared in a subterranean laboratory. Many people would go to the warm waters of this center for healing. It appears it was in this spa that he spent the most relaxing days of his life”.27 He spent a few months in the abbey of Pfaffers. He studied the healing power of the warm water springs and successfully cured the monastery Abbot, for whom he wrote a medical treatise about diet. In the studies he conducted in this spa he included precise dietetic indications and regulations, which represent one of the first documents on scientific balneology (hydrotherapy).28
Regarding mines, throughout his life, and during his constant pilgrimage around endless number of countries, he had many occasions to visit many of them. He didn’t want to miss the study in situ of the most famous ones in Europe. It may be remembered that in his childhood he had already frequented with his father, the mining school which the Fuggers had in the region of Carinthia. Therefore, in his book Chronicle of Carinthia, based on due consideration, he would write: “The mountains of Carinthia are like a coffer that, upon opening it with a key, will reveal precious treasures”.29 Apart from this, during his youth, he visited the British tin-mines of Cornwall, the lead-mines of Cumbria, and the Swedish copper mines of Falun. In his middle age he was able to visit many of the metalliferous operations (copper, lead, iron, silver, or gold) in the central and south of Germany of that time; he got to know the mercury mine of Idrija, in Slovenia; and in the Austrian Tirol, the silver mines of the Inn river valley.30 It was also, precisely in the mining districts of Hall and Schwaz, in Tirol, where in 1533 his interest for examining the common illnesses of miners revived and where, he would write the first recognized and systematized treatise of medical literature about an illness related to work.31
Indeed Paracelsus had the opportunity to put himself inside the shoes of the miners and was aware of their suffering as workers and as people. Later on, we will touch upon his social struggle in favor of this labor collective. His interest for metals and alchemy made him spend many hours of his life in caves, mines and basements. He used to habilitate his laboratories, with their respective ovens, in the basements of the houses or castles where he would stay the longest. For that he used castles of acquaintances or friends, like the Duke of Bavaria in Neuburg, in 1525, or the castle Horn of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, around 1529, property of some rich friends, and with the support of whom he built another chemical laboratory.32 In these laboratories he developed authentic medical and scientific research. He would take pride of having researched forty different diseases.33