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  • Paracelsus: Prince of Physicians, King of Chemists
    _Original Rockstar of Science

    Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, self-styled as Paracelsus, was a Swiss-German polymath and occultist active in the early 1500s. Notable among his many contributions (including the designation “father of toxicology”) was his emphasis on observation when knowledge from the past held in highest regard. This belief, admittedly revolutionary at the time, was further reflected in his personal motto: alterius non sit qui suus esse potest (“let no man belong to another who can belong to himself”). He refused to follow centuries-old schools of thought, relying on his own wits to understand the world around him. Paracelsus’s defiant independence naturally clashed with authorities, only serving to stoke his ego (see quote below). His challenges to traditional medicine, advocacy for observation as the path to knowledge, and use of common language for scholarly communication (learned individuals only lectured in Latin) all reflect changes society still struggles with today.

    What can we learn about science from a 16th Century mystic?
    Science, compared to other fields like math or art or finance, is formally a recent development. The first text to resemble a modern journal article - Galileo’s Starry Messenger - like Paracelsus and his philosophy, is prophetic of open science and data. Paracelsus believed knowledge and the information behind it should be wide-spread (e.g. even physicians of his time were comparably educated with barbers and butchers (Stowe 1986)) as well as rigorously examined and questioned.

    He also thought he was incredibly smart:

    I am Theophrastus, and greater than those to whom you liken me [Paracelsus means “next to Celsus”, a Greek scholar of medicine]; I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum [prince of physicians] and I can prove to you what you cannot prove...I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine...As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?... Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges (Wikipedia).

    From a modern perspective, his teachings seem like as much quackery as the Antiquity-based knowledge he challenged: Paracelsus often used astrological and alchemical explanations as evidence. But unlike the authoritative scholars, Paracelsus emphasized observation and iteration in his proto-scientific practice. And while he published a few texts on his medicinal findings, much more of his time was spent wandering to avoid punishment, spreading his teachings, and tending to the afflicted in ways that later came to have miraculous significance. This led to the Paracelsian movement (through to the 17th century), a loose following that collected and in fact corrected much of Paracelsus’s scattered scholarship. This shows that even one with “more experience than all high colleges” requires good peer review.

    Though it was short-lived, Paracelsianism questioned the traditional, and often wrong, medical authority of the pre-industrial age, setting the stage for unprecedented scientific advances. What’s more, with his advocacy for actually looking at nature and real effects, Paracelsus predicated notions of the scientific method and evidence-based medicine. And by injecting a healthy dose of pardigm-shifting anti-authoritarianism, we can begin to see modern science begin to take form. His pompous, in hindsight, is even a boon – it serves as an excellent example of why scientists should remain humble, listening to the stories and corrections nature has to give.


    1. Steven M. Stowe, Roderick E. McGrew. Encyclopedia of Medical History. The History Teacher 19, 458 (1986). Link