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JAMA 100 Years Ago
February 13, 2013


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2013;309(6):528. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.145217

Under the name of Paracelsus the history of medicine has become familiar with the career and teachings of Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, a physician at one time professor in the university at Basel, who lived at the opening of the sixteenth century. There are probably few men of whom so much good has been written and who also have been so roundly censured and discredited as this man. To understand the assumed place of Paracelsus in the teachings of his generation it must be recalled that the backbone of the study of medicine at that time was anatomy. The name of Galen carried the dominant authority; the work of Vesalius and his followers was coming into vogue. Paracelsus was essentially a medical chemist and one of the earliest pharmacologists, if indeed this designation is appropriately applicable to that period. He considered the relations between diseases and drugs; and the use of laudanum as well as of many other vegetable therapeutic agents is said to have been due to him. The names of zinc and bismuth appeared to have been first mentioned by Paracelsus, who also noted the bleaching action of the fumes of sulphur, and prepared hydrochloric acid from oil of vitriol and salt. These illustrations serve to indicate how radical and progressive must have been the activities of this student of the nascent science of chemistry in a day when the great teachers of medicine paid no heed to chemical learning, and the investigations of so-called science were pursued by ecclesiastics in solitude and retirement. Little wonder, then, if a physician like Paracelsus incurred the antagonism of the orthodox medical profession, which still accepted the sacred authority of Galen and others.