A mind well ahead of its time

“Paracelsus was an alchemist, shaman and magician. But he was also the first scientist, a doctor whose influence is still felt today.”

Peter Ackroyd reviews The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball, in the London Times:


“I am different,” Paracelsus wrote. “Let this not upset you.”

But it did. He was denounced as a fanatic or impostor and reviled as a drunkard. He was forced to wander from city to city in search of work and bread. He was considered coarse and vulgar, but replied characteristically that “I am a rough man born in a rough country, and what seems silk in my eyes may be but homespun to you.” This was the man who, according to his latest biographer, “started a medical revolution and founded a chemical tradition”.

The “rough country” was Switzerland, but he made all Europe his province. The year of his birth, 1493, can plausibly be seen as the beginning of the modern era. It might be described as the birth of the scientific era, but the word would have meant nothing to him. The term “scientist” was not coined until the 1830s. For Paracelsus and his contemporaries, magic, alchemy and astrology were absolutely embedded within natural philosophy and experimental procedure. Newton was an alchemist and numerologist who drew up arcane recipes for the transmutation of gold and dreamed of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon. Paracelsus predates him by 150 years, but the two philosophers shared the same vital mingling of experimental and transcendental, observed and occult.

More here.