The Swiss Pharmaceutical History Museum in Basel, located in the attractive Haus zum Sessel, might have a boring name, but nearly 500 years ago the building hosted the wonderfully weird Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. This ebullient eccentric was born in 1493 in Einsiedeln and having studied medicine he changed his name, luckily for us, to the simpler Paracelsus. I must admit, he is one of my favourite characters of the 16th century.
For years he travelled Europe studying the properties of herbs and chemicals and gaining reknown as a magician, alchemist, and most of all a compassionate if unorthodox doctor. He stood just five feet tall and carried a sword as long as his height. He was cantankerous, irritable and fiercely argumentative – and that was just with his friends! In late 1526, he arrived in Basel to treat the book publisher Johannis Froben.
Froben had understood that culture was business and from his home in zum Sessel his printing press exerted an enormous influence. His domination of cultural production was greater than Ruport Murdoch’s today, and far more civilizing. The star in Froben’s universe was Erasmus, who lived in Basel with his publisher friend. It was here that Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was published in 1516 – arguably one of the most influential books ever printed. The painter Hans Holbein also worked at zum Sessel. By 1526 however, Froben was on his last legs, literally, as doctors prepared to amputate one of his infected lower limbs. Erasmus sent for the famed Paracelsus and under his treatment Froben was cured. In gratitude Froben had Paracelsus appointed Professor of Medicine at Basel University. Paracelsus landed at this esteemed centre of learning like a meteorite.
Medical knowledge was handicapped by an exaggerated respect for the ancient Greeks who, let’s face it, got a lot of things wrong: they had forgotten to invent zero, figured that the planets orbited the earth and the great medical guru Galen had claimed that disease was caused by an imbalance in the four humours. Paracelsus made his position clear when he advised (and I beg your pardon) “Shit on your ….. Aristotle”! Never one to tolerate stupidity, he commenced his work in Basel by publicly tossing Galen’s works onto a bonfire on the Marktplatz, outside the Rathaus, accompanied by a bunch of joyfully riotous students. Having thus poked his finger in the astonished eye of the establishment he blinded them with fury by consuming vast amounts of wine in working men’s inns. Rubbing salt into festering wounds he refused to wear his professorial robes but donned a worker’s tunic and, adding insult to injury, refused to teach in Latin but lectured in the language of stable boys, German. He then preached the revolutionary idea that to cure the sick one must not turn to Greek texts, but one should examine each patient in her environmental, physical and spiritual contexts. Most illnesses, he offered, were caused by outside agents that penetrated the body. Furthermore, he advocated the use of minerals or chemicals to fight disease.
The Cathedral of Basel overlooking the Rhine
Paracelsus had succeeded in becoming the most hated man in Basel. One Sunday morning worshippers at the Cathedral as well as at the churches of St. Martin and St. Peter found scurrilous anti-Paracelsus poems hanging from the doors. They had been signed, “The Ghost of Galen”.
Even Paracelsus needed a respite from the invective verbal wars he had unleashed. He decided to visit Zurich and spent a week at the Hotel zum Storchen, on the banks of the River Limmat. But Zürich was in the grip of the Protestant Reformation and the local ayatollahs watched him carefully; church leader and leading Reformer Heinrich Bullinger reported that Paracelsus was a ‘filthy man’ who spent his time getting drunk with rabble. As usual, Paracelsus pushed what was permissible to the limit, or should I say, to the Limmat.
The Hotel zum Storchen overlooking the Limmat
Alas, this was but a brief respite in his life. He returned to Basel only for Froben to inconveniently die. With his protector gone our hero was chased out of the city and spent the rest of his life as a vagabond doctor, just one step ahead of trouble. The Luther of Medicine died in Salzburg in 1541 and was buried, according to his own wishes, in a pauper’s grave. Even then he didn’t rest in peace – his bones were exhumed in the 19th century.
Today Zurich has a Paracelsus School of Natural Healing while the University has a Paracelsus Research Project; Einsiedeln has a Paracelsus Pharmacy and a Paracelsus Society; Basel, forgetting its inhospitality, has a Paracelsusstrasse. Homeopaths claim him as one of their own, but so do pharmaceutical industrialists. Hunted when alive, all has now been forgiven and, dead, Paracelsus belongs to all.
Plaque commemorating Paracelsus at the Hotel zum Storchen