The original mad scientist

The 16th century alchemist known as Paracelsus was a drunken, foul-mouthed coot -- and the unlikely father of modern medicine.

Published April 18, 2006 10:49AM (EDT)

Nerd. Geek. Poindexter. The classmate with the taped-together glasses, pocket protector and bad haircut; the subway passenger with the abstracted gaze and "The Very Best of the Feynman Lectures" playing on her iPod; the professor with chalk dust on his coat, mismatched socks and a Nobel in his future. The image of the kooky, bedraggled scientist -- wide-eyed Einstein with his mad corona of white hair, sticking out his tongue -- is so ingrained in the collective imagination that it's come to resemble a veritable cartoon.

In Philip Ball's deeply weird and wonderful new book, "The Devil's Doctor," the man who might well be the prototype for that familiar mad-scientist figure -- the 16th century alchemist and epic wanderer Paracelsus -- neatly escapes the caricaturist's frame and emerges exuberantly and combatively alive. Hardly a hagiography, the book (subtitled, enticingly, "Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science") rescues from obscurity a man who, Ball argues, was a flesh-and-blood hinge between the medieval and the modern universe. In his 48 years, Paracelsus walked (literally, as his almost unbelievably peripatetic life attests) from a world ruled largely by ancient superstition and blind fear to the edge of an age where reason, experimentation and observation were beginning to decipher the workings of the heavens above our head and the universe within our skin.

In short, in his half-century of life, Paracelsus straddled epochs, while his integral role in the transition between the two arose, volcanically, from the intense, teeming impulses in his own life and work. He was not, in the modern meaning of the term, a scientist, but his obsessions and methods heralded modern science's birth; deeply religious, his insistence on reason's primacy laid the groundwork for some of the greatest challenges ever launched against church and faith.

Far from a nerd, then, Paracelsus comes across in "The Devil's Doctor" as part rock star, part prickly old coot and part angry prophet. For Ball, as for the reader, the man's outsize personality, half a millennium after his death, is irresistible, while the influence of his life's work on the modern world continues to astonish.

Philip Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was born in 1493 in the Swiss town of Einsiedeln, the son of a learned but poor country doctor and a mother who died before he was 10 years old. Named for a pupil of Aristotle's -- Tyrtamos of Eresos, or Theophrastus, who headed the Lyceum in Athens after his teacher's death -- the boy who would be Paracelsus was sickly, frail and lucky to survive childhood. Ball paints a vivid, grim picture of the era, in which roughly one in three children died before reaching a year:

"No matter who you were in sixteenth-century Europe, you could be sure of two things: you would be lucky to reach fifty years of age, and you could expect a life of discomfort and pain. There were doctors and there was medicine, but there does not seem to have been a great deal of healing ... the doctor was as likely to kill or to maim as to cure. The surgeon and the Inquisitor differed only in their motivation: otherwise, their battery of knives, saws, and tongs for slicing, piercing, burning, and amputating were barely distinguishable.

"And there was illness everywhere: plague, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, leprosy. At least some of the febrile madness and apocalyptic panic of the age can be attributed to a monotonous, insipid diet that left people restless and weak: wheat, rye, barley, oats, millet. Drinking water was invariably dangerous, which was why ale and wine were the beverages of choice for all ages and all social strata, leading to endemic drunkenness."

In such a world, Paracelsus' absolute faith in divinely created Nature as a source of healing and cures, and his confidence in his own powers of observation and alchemical experimentation, led to lifelong clashes with the established medical practitioners and philosophers of the day. (The man's certainty in his own abilities was formidable, lending credence to at least one theory of why he adopted the name "Paracelsus" in midlife. No one knows, absolutely, why he decided upon the name, but as Ball points out, Paracelsus can, in fact, translate as both "superior to Celsus" -- that is, greater than the revered first century Roman writer and physician, Celsus -- or it can be read as "beside or alongside Celsus," indicating a kinship rather than supremacy. Either way, the appellation suggests a boundless confidence in the owner's self-esteem.)

Considering the man's personality and his iconoclastic bent of mind, such clashes were inevitable. Taught from an early age by his father's example and word to study the world -- its plants, minerals and animals -- as a means of understanding the interconnectedness of sickness and health, Paracelsus initially chafed at and ultimately tore free of the theoretical ties that bound the physicians of the time. "Medicine in the early Renaissance had barely advanced since the time of the Roman Empire," Ball writes. "To the academic physicians of the universities it had, like every other science, been 'solved' by the doctors of antiquity -- Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.) and Galen (c. A.D. 129-c. 200), whose works had been translated, augmented and honed by the great Arab physicians such as Avicenna and Rhazes. To become a doctor of medicine, one had simply to study these past masters and follow their recommendations. The physician's proper place was in the library, not in the surgery."

Indeed, in Paracelsus' age, many physicians diagnosed and prescribed without so much as laying a hand on or seeing a patient. Instead, esoteric practices such as uroscopy, or determining bodily imbalances via what Ball calls "absurdly subtle and probably imperceptible gradations of color, smell, sediment content, and viscosity of urine," were the order of the day.

"All they can do," Paracelsus wrote of the men he viewed as medical and surgical frauds and worse, "is to gaze at piss."

Paracelsus' great insight, and the theory that he advocated and pursued for the remainder of his life, toward a variety of ends, was that a physician, alchemist or any other practitioner of the earthly arts had only to observe, experiment and remain open to the possibilities inherent in the natural world in order to be a true medico.

"Of all disciplines medicine alone, through the grace of God and according to the opinion of authors divine and profane, is recognized as a sacred art," he wrote in a June 1527 address to students at the University of Basle, where he had won a position as a lecturer. "What a doctor needs is not eloquence or knowledge of language and of books, but a profound knowledge of Nature and her works. The doctor must know the causes and symptoms of the disease and use his judgment to prescribe the right medicine."

(His position as professor and respectable townsman was, characteristically, a short-lived plum, as he fled Basle a year later in order to escape imprisonment and likely execution after unapologetically defaming the city fathers. The details of his flight are almost preposterously in character: He had, in effect, saved the life of the canon of Basle Cathedral, one of the richest, most powerful men in the city. The canon, gravely ill, offered a reward of 100 guilders to the physician who could save him. Paracelsus did just that. The canon rewarded him with six guilders. Paracelsus appealed to the courts. The courts sided with the canon. Paracelsus then published a pamphlet -- "the sick and the law judge of healing as if it were shoemaking" -- that, in 16th century Switzerland, amounted to libel and treason. The authorities were displeased. He fled.)

Today, Paracelsus' urging that doctors know the causes and symptoms of disease and use judgment to prescribe the right medicine seems obvious to the point of silliness. In the early years of the 1500s, however, such pronouncements were heresies -- verbal and ideological grenades tossed with, one senses, something like a dark, adamant glee into the heart of the established medical order. Paracelsus, after all, was a revolutionary, and like all genuine revolutionaries, his primary field of battle was the human mind. He had stumbled upon or been struck by a vision of what medicine could and should be, and his tough, fighter's nature would not allow him to bow to the received notions of the day.

Nor, however, would he see victory in his lifetime.

But what a lifetime! Paracelsus was about as respectable -- and about as interested in the trappings of respectability -- as your average comic-strip hobo. A sort of uneasy melding of Charles Bukowski and Charles Darwin, by way of Charles Schulz at his pulling-the-football-away-from-the-kicker's-toe bleakest, Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was, at times, as Ball delightedly points out, a "filthy, vain, foul-mouthed drunkard." He was also a dedicated, uniquely intuitive observer of the natural world -- a trait that, in conjunction, no doubt, with his titanic obnoxiousness, kept him constantly on the move for the last three decades of his life.

From the time he was an early teen until his death in 1541, Paracelsus traveled by foot, horse, boat and carriage from his native Switzerland to (in no particular order) Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Danzig, Venice, Lisbon, Barcelona, Jerusalem, Cairo, Constantinople, Algiers, Oran and a thousand hamlets and cities in between. He dined with nobles and drank with peasants. He treated the rich and the powerful as a feted physician, and he slept in haystacks and under bridges as a common bum. Defiantly coarse in his day-to-day manner and in his dealings with medical colleagues and the law, he nonetheless often wrote with a poet's sensitivity and a philosopher's sense of proportion and reason.

"The art of medicine can not be inherited" or copied from books, Paracelsus assured would-be healers. Admonishing physicians to learn and relearn their craft and to forever challenge their own easy assumptions, he reminded his peers that "one must not doze like a peasant turning over pears in the sun."

Even the engravings reproduced in the book suggest a profoundly contradictory individual: one image, in particular -- a 500-year-old beauty by August Hirschvogel -- depicts a man who, if passed on the street this afternoon, might be mistaken for Wallace Shawn, if Shawn wore a monk's tunic and quite ably wielded a large, terrifying sword.

While hugely engaging for readers of a certain sensibility -- namely, those readers fascinated by history, science, the history of science and (let's face it) mind-bendingly weird arcana -- "The Devil's Doctor" is hardly for everyone. Philip Ball is, at times, an almost infuriatingly erudite writer, perfectly happy to spend page upon page delineating 16th century mining and timber-cutting methods, celebrating the genius of 12th century Arabian scholars or tracing the tortuous route of a (now long-discredited) scientific theory from, say, classical Greece to medieval Antwerp.

But Ball, an editor at Nature magazine and science writer in residence at University College London, is also, as he has proved in all of his previous books, an author of rare grace and ambition, and "The Devil's Doctor" is, in the end, an enormously impressive and even joyful feat of scholarship and reconstruction. Here, as in "Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water," "Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color," "Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of the Elements" (some books are simply unimaginable without subtitles) and a half-dozen other works, Ball has taken seemingly inexpressible ideas and concepts and made them plain.

Beyond that, though, he has made those ideas and concepts meaningful. He has given us, improbably, a renewed sense of why we still treat science as a sort of magic, and why scientists and physicians are so often seen not as rational beings, but as miracle workers.

Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was a superstitious man. Like Sir Isaac Newton, he believed that the pursuit of alchemy -- the distillation, separation and reconstitution of essential, irreducible elements for the betterment of his fellow creatures -- was a way of pursuing and, perhaps, attaining a kind of heaven on earth. Through incantation, Christian faith and dogged, pigheaded persistence, he sought to read the book of Nature and to teach others its sacred lessons. Paracelsus' philosophy, Ball assures us, "was magical to its very core," while his worldly, practical methods almost wholly presaged modern science and medicine.

Through this dense, illuminating, stranger-than-fiction tale of genius and pluck, Paracelsus is revived, warts and all, regaining his unique place in history. While there's hardly a reader born who will devour the tale in one sitting, or even plow through it cover to cover, few books published this year will reward judicious, persistent and curious browsing as "The Devil's Doctor" does. Here is a book one can repeatedly, profitably dip into, from time to time, when the spirit strikes -- a reminder of how wondrous and strange the world once was and, despite all we think we know, how wondrous and strange it remains.

By Ben Cosgrove

Ben Cosgrove is a freelance writer in New York and the editor of the baseball anthology "Covering the Bases."

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