Today, we meet a printer and an alchemist. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I've spoken before of
Paracelsus. This quixotic knight of early science
draws me like flame draws a moth. Born in
Switzerland the year Columbus sailed to America,
Paracelsus became a wandering scholar. He spoke the
language of magic and alchemy. Yet he transmuted
that tongue even as he spoke it.
Paracelsus had a special interest in medicine. He
wrote voluminously. He boasted. He tore into his
opponents. He made enemies. If we only glance at
him, we see a quarrelsome mountebank. But let's
look more closely. Then we can see substance.
People would speak of white magic and black magic.
"No!" roared Paracelsus, "There is only one magic."
Good or evil vests in the practitioner, not the
art. He used the word magic. But when he shifted
moral responsibility to the magician, magic became
another word for the powers of nature. In that
sense, he practiced modern science. He even hinted
at modern psychiatry.
Paracelsus demanded a new level of observation in
medicine. In 1527 he built a bonfire at the
University in Basel. Into it he flung Galen's
classic Roman medical text. He condemned the old
scholastic medicine. He told doctors that their
eyes and their heads would teach them what Galen
By now Paracelsus had a disciple. He was the young
printer Oporinus. They made an odd couple.
Paracelsus almost killed Oporinus by experimenting
on him. Oporinus honored Paracelsus's abilities. He
also wrote that he was irreverent, a glutton, and a
drunk. Paracelsus wrote about "faithful Oporinus."
Paracelsus finally brought such chaos on himself
that Oporinus had to leave him. Yet he was finally
instrumental in completing Paracelsus's agenda of
The year Paracelsus threw the old text on the fire,
a young boy in Flanders, Andreas Vesalius, was preparing to
study medicine. Vesalius soon raised the same
objections in Italy. He went on to write the first
modern text on anatomy.
Vesalius really threw Galen into the fire. He
corrected over 200 major errors in the old
standard. Then he went to a student of Titian to
illustrate the work.
Finally, two years after Paracelsus died, Vesalius
called on Oporinus to print his book. He'd picked
the right person. Oporinus understood what this
manuscript was. He printed one of the most
beautiful and important books of all time. That
book changed medicine forever.
Oporinus had played Sancho Panza to Paracelsus's
Quixote. But it had not been in vain. The master's
squire had, at last, helped to tumble the windmill
of outdated medicine.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Pachter, H.M., Paracelsus: Magic Into
Science. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951.
Boorstin, D.J., The Discoverers. New
York: Random House, 1983, Chapter 46.
Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians.
New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966, Chapter I.
For more on Paracelsus, see Episode 511. Oporinus studied with
another great Swiss printer, Frobenius or "Froben."
Froben was Erasmus's printer and Paracelsus's benefactor. Unfortunately
he died just after the bonfire incident.
For more on Vesalius, see Episode 325. See also Boorstin
(above) or Nuland, S.B., Doctors: The
Biography of Medicine. New York: Vintage
Vesalius, A., De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Libri Septum. 1543. (Several facsimile
publications are available. Check your
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.