The life and times of Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, the “father of modern medicine.”
Ball (Critical Mass, 2004, etc.) is interested more in the ideological milieu of the Renaissance than in his subject’s medical career. For good reason: Renaissance medicine was no science. Paracelsus (1493–1541) did favor experience over authority, but even his “reforms” did not go much beyond the witch-doctor stage. Still, he lived in a time when the medieval synthesis was falling apart and did his best to accelerate the process. Son of a village doctor in Switzerland, Paracelsus learned the usual Latin, grammar and rhetoric, but gained more practical knowledge when his father moved to an Austrian mining town where the boy studied metallurgy, later the foundation of his alchemical lore. Early medicine incorporated alchemy and astrology, both changing rapidly after the 15th-century influx of Greek and Arabic knowledge into Europe. Ball surveys both fields, showing what Paracelsus built on as well as what he replaced with his own theories. (Not always an easy distinction to make, given his love of neologisms.) Paracelsus’s idiosyncrasies put him at odds with both the Catholic Church and its emergent Lutheran critics. His vehement opposition to traditional doctors inevitably brought him into conflict with the locals (portraits usually show him wearing a sword), and as a result he led a wandering life, never marrying. The author carefully explains Paracelsus’s theories, clearly showing how he broke with medieval practice, but avoids the temptation to make him a pioneering modern where he is not. A true iconoclast, he inhabited an ideological landscape somewhere between the medieval and the modern. Ball effectively places Paracelsus in the larger context of Renaissance magic and philosophy, and of a turbulent period.
Often slow going, but worth the effort.