The Madman Who Invented Modern Science

“All is interrelated. Heaven and earth, air and water. All are but one thing; not four, not two and not three, but one. Where they are not together, there is only an incomplete piece.” —Paracelsus

In A Nutshell

Paracelsus is often called the father of modern medicine and chemistry, establishing the basics of what we now accept as logical, rational fact when it comes to joining medicine with the other sciences. The man himself was far from rational and logical, though, an egotistical madman who was a physician, alchemist, astrologer, and biologist. He believed that he could create life by fermenting semen and horse manure and that madness was caused by the alignment of the stars, and he held massive book burnings when it came to texts written by physicians he wanted to replace.

The Whole Bushel

The man eventually known as Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born in Switzerland in 1493, the son of a poor doctor. To help support the family, he was sent off to be an apprentice miner, and you’d think that with these rather humble beginnings, he’d be a little bit more of an understanding sort of person. That wasn’t necessarily the case, though.

He started in university when he was 14, and by the time he was 16, he had decided that his teachers really didn’t know what they were talking about. While he did receive his doctorate from a university (it has always been disputed which university it was), it’s also where he changed his name to the much more manageable—but much, much more egotistical—Paracelsus. His new name demonstrated just what he thought of his predecessors; drawn from the Latin, it’s a reference to Aulus Cornelius Celsus, and means “greater than Celsus.”

Much of his career is pretty standard stuff for the groundbreaking researchers, scientists, and physicians of the time. He traveled throughout Europe, into the Middle East, and as far as India. When he got back, his newfound knowledge didn’t do much to deflate his ego, and he ran into trouble with accepted authorities so often that much of his life was spent being thrown out of one city and traveling to another, usually after burning the books of teachers he didn’t agree with.

While most physicians at the time were showing an increasing interest in human anatomy and just how all the bits that made up a person fit together and worked in harmony, Paracelsus thought that was the absolutely wrong direction to be looking. Instead of looking at the human body to understand how it worked, he thought researchers should be looking to the nature that surrounded them. He believed that since we were clearly made from the same elements as the cosmos, we needed to understand that and apply those learnings to the human body.

For him, astrology and medicine went hand in hand. He believed that man’s actions—specifically, madness—happened when the stars acted in conjunction with a person and other elements around them to awaken the most primal of notions within them. While he thought that the stars dictated a lot about a person’s destiny, he also thought that learning, knowledge, and understanding could free man from whatever way the stars bound him.

Most bizarre was his supposed creation of a homunculus, a little man born from semen left to putrefy in a sealed contained with some horse manure, then fed human blood until it started to move on its own. The theory this was based around was that all the essential material needed to form a human being came from the father, while the mother was only an incubator. (Consequently, he thought all masturbation was evil and nothing less than murder, and bachelors should be castrated lest their unborn children die within them.)

Weirdly, he did hold some beliefs that ended up revolutionizing medicine and chemistry. He thought that diseases weren’t an infection of the entire body but would settle into a particular tissue or organ. He used inorganic substances as medicine, much to the outrage of many of his peers. Until Paracelsus, medicine was a completely separate entity from other sciences such as chemistry, but his success in treating wounds with inorganic minerals cemented a relationship between the sciences that changed the world.

Show Me The Proof

Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature, by Allen Thiher
Toxicological Sciences: Paracelsus: Herald of Modern Toxicology
The European Graduate School: Paracelsus
Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus’ Homunculus