Myths And Illusions: The Myth of Paracelsus’ Scientific Contributions
I want to begin this post beating up on Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, with a brief digression. As a student of the Middle Ages and Renaissance during my undergraduate days (as well as an Ancient History buff), I noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we talk about the store of knowledge humanity has acquired over the course of its existence, something is deemed to have been “discovered” only when (1) it’s explicitly attested to in writing (2) by a man (3) who has a name. Knowledge possessed and applied by women, or by illiterate societies, or by anonymous people is deemed to not exist; and women themselves, as well as “natives”, are matter-of-factly treated as passive objects of study, rather than human beings capable of possessing and using information. Thus, you might hear Hippocrates credited with “discovering” the early symptoms of pregnancy – even though midwifery existed as a recognized profession for at least 1,500 years before him, and papyri with instructions on how to calculate gestational age date to about that far back. (Sometimes the credit is given to Imhotep, instead.)
In the same vein, I find it remarkable that Paracelsus is credited with discovering that the deadliness of poison depends on dosage. Note, Paracelsus didn’t actually write a treatise on poisons formalizing dosages, he merely said that “the dose makes the poison” (and literally, that’s it), yet he gets the prize for this as his “contribution” to the study of toxicity. Never you mind that poisonous plants had been used as both murder weapons and medicines since Neolithic times – being that herbalists and midwives were almost all women, and the only men who worked with poisons in the age before industrial pharmacology were assassins and executioners, the fact that these people knew how poisons work (and a hell of a lot better than Paracelsus, too), simply doesn’t count. Credit goes to Paracelsus, even in the minds of people who are scientists and identify as progressive, people whom I expect understand history better than to say it was only in the 16th century that anyone figured out how poisons work, people who should know better.
Above all, however, Paracelsus is a remarkable study in how naively modern scientific triumphalism projects its beliefs onto the odd pre-modern contrarian, whose personality clashes and conflicts with the learned establishment are taken as evidence of scientific precociousness. In that regard, Paracelsus is a lot like Giordano Bruno, though I must say, compared to the former, the latter is positively a towering giant of science.
Born at the end of the 15th century in a small village in what is today Switzerland, Paracelsus grew up an only child in a poor and almost certainly dysfunctional family. His mother was a mentally unstable woman who committed suicide when he was an adolescent (by some accounts, publicly), so it is not surprising that little Theo had mommy issues – which manifested themselves in spectacularly Freudian ways. In his prime, the man was obsessed with bodily excretions, especially semen and poop, in a way that went far, far beyond what one would consider rational scientific curiosity.
One can say, of course, that it is all a matter of perspective. You can take Paracelsus’ comments on asexual reproduction, with instructions on putting semen in a jar and mixing it with horseshit to create a homunculus (no, really), and decide that the man was trying to create an artificial uterus – but that would work only if your definition of science is exceedingly loose.* And, it ultimately depends on whether you consider alchemy a proto-science.
Contrary to popular belief, the Renaissance was not a particularly good time for science. In fact, scientific inquiry suffered quite a set-back during this period. The obsession with rediscovering the glory of the Ancient World, so characteristic of the Renaissance, did not merely encompass art and architecture, but fed a belief that the Ancients possessed some magic knowledge – the key to the greatness of their civilizations – that had been lost and would now have to be rediscovered. The great religious upheavals of the late Renaissance, for their part, certainly didn’t help. Consequently, scholars abandoned evidence-based observational study in favor of the occult. And that’s really what alchemy is – it’s the occult. By the most liberal assessment, some alchemical texts can be interpreted as using the language of physical elements to convey philosophical or mystical ideas. Moreover, alchemy certainly had a great stylistic influence on Western European literatures at this time, which makes for some fascinating reading (if you are into dissecting obscure texts). But it was not, by any stretch, a science.
The result of this obsession with magic was a marked slow-down in the scientific progress. Aristotle, being an Ancient Greek and therefore beyond challenge, maintained a kung fu death-grip on biology and medicine well into the Industrial Revolution. Other scientific fields fared better, but still, the Scientific Revolution did not arrive until the 17th century, well after the Renaissance was over and its occult craze was on the wane. (One can speculate that the witch hunts of the 17th century were a reaction to said craze – but I digress.)
So where does Paracelsus fit on this picture? He rejected the unscientific notions embraced by university big-shots at the time, but this was not for apocryphal reasons routinely ascribed to him by the moderns. Much of his attitude had to do with the fact that he lacked the background in Latin and especially Greek to read the texts that were considered the gold standard for science at the time. His behavior does not illustrate a particularly curious or objectively oriented mentality. He was not a man “ahead of his time” – on the contrary, he was a man very much of his time, a crank. He substituted the commonly held kooky ideas of his peers with other, his own, kooky ideas. His “contributions” to medicine – apart from the aforementioned “discovery” of what professionals had known for thousands of years – were all in the field of Hermeticism, a curious blend of esoteric religious beliefs and occultic “science”; and as such, proved worthless in the long run. His contributions to science were, to put it bluntly, non-existent.
He was, however, a wonderfully filthy curmudgeon – that special creature that students of history adore — which is, I believe, the real reason his name did not disappear into the mists of time. The incident for which he is most famous involved him presenting his colleagues at the University of Basel with a pile of fresh steaming turds (presumably his own) on a platter. As the learned men scampered away in disgust, Paracelsus bellowed after them: “If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians.” Even this tends to be elevated to an act of scientific heroism and progressiveness, notwithstanding that Paracelsus never actually documented any serious study of the gastro-intestinal “mysteries”, and the incident has all the hallmarks of an attention-seeking prank.
I guess we can credit him with discovering that yes, shit does stink, as had been previously rumored. Gold star?
*By that standard, I too was being a “scientist” when, at age six, I mixed my mom’s French perfume with pee, laundry detergent and drain cleaner, to see what happens. I was even persecuted afterwards for my experiment (Magie Noire was hard to come by in the USSR, so my mom was a tad upset). You can say I suffered for “science”.