The Devil's Doctor, by Philip Ball

Decay is the midwife of great things
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The Independent Culture

In English speaking countries, the name Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (1493 - 1541) isn't often heard these days. Nor is the much shorter, though no less self-important pseudonym this distinguished Renaissance figure adopted. In German-speaking lands, however, the name Paracelsus conjures legends, myths, and tall tales of esoteric secrets, like the real nature of the Philosopher's Stone, or the best recipe for a homunculus. So charged with evocative power is the name, that in 1943, Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda for the Nazi Party, gratefully approved GW Pabst's biopic of the legendary alchemist, philosopher and physician, in a bid to garner some mystical endorsement for Hitler's regime. Pabst presents him as a wandering, fiery-eyed savant, healing the sick with miraculous cures, and confounding the flatulent armchair doctors, who base their work on mouldy books, and not the life-giving forces of Mother Nature. Setting aside the noxious use the Nazis made of the film, I remember it being not at all bad; at least as good as similar efforts churned out by Hollywood at the time.

Were a film about Paracelsus to be made today, however, it would have to be based on this excellent biography. Philip Ball's account of this semi-mythical and little-known figure is a pleasure to read, combining a page-turning narrative with brief histories of Renaissance magic, medicine and religious upheaval. Paracelsus, an argumentative mystic if there ever was one, was at the centre of several controversies, sharing the historical spotlight with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and Erasmus. Ball, a science writer who's written on such arcane subjects as the invention of colour and the biography of water, is no debunker, out to rumble the great Paracelsus as a mountebank and charlatan. He briskly makes clear what can be salvaged from Paracelsian medicine and chemistry, and what was just plain wrong. But unlike some historians of science who are uncomfortable writing about "occult" figures, Ball makes no bones about appreciating Paracelsus for who he is. Paracelsus was as much an early chemist as a spiritual healer, and Ball obviously enjoys telling his fascinating story. He presents the pugnacious, sometimes repellent magician as a sympathetic, even likable individual, who was tragically too often the agent of his own downfalls.

It was common among humanists in Paracelsus's day to reinvent yourself by adopting a name from one of the greats of the past. "Paracelsus" is usually taken to mean "greater than" or "beyond" Celsus, a Roman writer of the first century AD, who put together a kind of medical encyclopaedia. Yet it can also be read as a loose Latin translation of "beyond" Hohenheim, which means "high home". But again, it can also mean "alongside Celsus", which suggests fellowship with the ancients, and not arrogant self-advertisement. But given Paracelsus's lifelong diatribes against the dogmatic parroting of old ideas, which, according to him, made up the medicine of his age, one feels his name, like his life, was a challenge to the status quo.

Medicine in Paracelsus's time was fixed on a set of eternal verities, handed down by Aristotle, Galen and other classical sources. Doctors were learned men, more interested in debating the accurate interpretation of some hoary maxim - or, as Paracelsus often pointed out, a vial of urine - than in close examination of their patient. Everything one needed to know to treat the sick had been discovered and laid down centuries ago, and the dirty business of cutting into suffering flesh - surgery - was left to barbers and butchers. Paracelsus recognised that more often than not, patients died from their treatment, not their ailment. During his short life - he died an aged man at 48 - Paracelsus took on the medical establishment of the time single-handedly. If you imagine a world without anaesthetic, when hygiene was unknown, and many diseases were seen as a punishment from God, or the work of the devil, you can see he had his work cut out. Ball's account is an antidote for any romantic nostalgia about a pre-modern age, when 40 was considered elderly, and most children died within a year of birth.

Rather than seek his cures in dusty texts, Paracelsus looked to nature, and he was determined to see as much of it as possible. In an age of numerous "intellectual vagabonds", such as the illustrious Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus outdid them all, tracing an incredible circuit that had him meeting shamans in Russia, visiting tin mines in Cornwall, studying alchemy in Cairo and the Kabbalah in Spain. He was also a military surgeon in Italy, where he saw the worst cases possible. Along the way he learned as much as he could from local sources, synthesising the folk cures of dozens of lands with his own alchemical medicine. This he set out in a mostly indecipherable prose. But he was also capable of pithy precision. Admiring the beneficial characteristics of putrefaction, he once alienated a school of medical dons by lecturing them on the virtues of shit: presenting them with a sample of his own, he declared that "Decay is the midwife of great things." Caught up in the Protestant crossfire, he called Luther and the Pope "Two whores debating chastity". No wonder he put the wind up just about everybody.

Paracelsus had many detractors, but Ball makes it clear that more times than not, he was his own worst enemy. Paracelsus was unable to recognise his own errors, and prepared to bulldoze his way through any disagreement. He wasn't averse to biting the hand that fed, if the owner seemed out of alignment with him. But unlike most doctors at the time, he had a real concern for the poor. Unable to pay the high fees demanded by the learned professors, the poor were left to get on as best they could. Paracelsus treated them when possible, and asked for nothing.

He was, as Ball makes clear, a contradictory soul. Celibate, he made a speciality of treating syphilis. His ideas about sperm were odd, to say the least. He was convinced that the sin of Onan - casting seed anywhere other than in a womb - led to the creation of monsters, yet he also believed that it was harmful to retain the stuff, as he thought it turned toxic if unused. The answer: unmarried men should perform self-castration; he even suggested that God placed the male genitals on the outside, in order to facilitate this act. But this was the height of his weirdness, and the rest of his medical advice, although currently not available on the NHS, rings with a kind of sense.

Paracelsus guarded his secrets carefully, and today it's unclear exactly what were the ingredients of his famous panacea, the "arcanum". Understandably, like other alchemists, Paracelsus was wary of profane hands pawing his treasures. We might not have his recipes, but we have Ball to thank for making his life an open secret.

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