Today, science masquerades as magic. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born in
Switzerland in 1493. But he called himself
Paracelsus. He learned medicine from his father. He
learned metallurgy as a lad working in the mines.
He became a wandering scholar.
Paracelsus took up the alchemy behind medicine and
metallurgy. He rejected Aristotle's science.
Knowledge, he claimed, is born in the mind, not in
nature. He adopted the language of arcana and
magic. He was difficult at best -- going from town
to town, offending people 'til they threw him out.
Once he wrote:
I am ... greater than those to whom you liken me
... I can prove to you what you cannot prove ...
[each] little hair on my neck knows more than you
and all your scribes.
He nearly settled in Basel when he was 34. The
great early printer Frobenius was ill. No other
physician could help him, so he turned to
Paracelsus. Frobenius must have been desperate. Yet
Paracelsus cured him. Next, Paracelsus became
physician to the scholar Erasmus. He found a place
But within a year he lit a bonfire in front of the
University and threw the standard medical text into
it. He might have survived the faculty's rage, but
then Frobenius died, after all. When he did,
Paracelsus's protection died with him.
He spent the last 14 years of his life wandering.
Governments banned his books. Yet, in the end, he
conquered history. He became the most famous
alchemist of all.
A huge sanity lurked under all his madness. He told
doctors to be far more careful in dosing people
with mercury. He began reshaping the essences of
earth, air, fire, and water into a concept of
chemical elements. He told his followers to monitor
medicine more carefully and to analyze symptoms.
Creative people see Paracelsus's secret. He fit no
mold. He was not Aristotelian, nor Platonic, nor a
witch doctor. Oh, he spoke in the language of
Platonic ideals and magic. But the magic he helped
us see was really the magic of nature itself. He
used his eyes as well as his head.
We would have forgotten him, but he left a legacy
that would not be forgotten. He'd written in German
instead of Latin. As people turned to the new
medium of print, they hungered for books they could
read. So they read Paracelsus. It was the printers
who saved him, after all.
300 years later, modern atomic theory grew out of
changes he'd set in motion. So did modern medical
science. And we're left with a hard message.
Creative people don't look the way we want them to
look. One way or another, they're always a trouble
to our mind, because they take us where we hadn't
meant to go.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians.
New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966, Chapter I.
Paracelsus, Paracelsus: Selected Writings
(Jolande Jacobi, ed.), Pantheon Books, 1951.
Also see commentaries from the years not long after
Paracelsus's death in 1541:
Burton, R., The Anatomy of Melancholy,
New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1927. (The
original was published in Latin in 1621.)
Debus, A.G., John Dee: The Mathematicall
Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of
Megara. New York: Science History
Publications, 1975. (The Praeface was printed in
Augustin Hirschvogel engraving,
For more images of Paracelsus, click
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |