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Paracelsus (1493—1541) was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer. If you’re surprised that one person could be a student of those three disciplines, remember from my blog of April 6, 2016 on Isaac Newton that in those days, no line divided science from the occult. In fact, Newton himself was an ardent alchemist.

Paracelsus, however, was best known for his work as a physician whose views contrasted with the prevailing theory of humorism that Hippocrates established and Galen modified (see last week’s blog). Paracelsus believed that certain illnesses have chemical remedies. Moreover, the remedy would look like the affected organ. So, for example, since the root of an orchid looks like a testicle, then that root could heal a testicle-associated illness.

Hippocrates theorized that illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, and Galen’s elaboration of this theory lasted into the nineteenth century. Paracelsus still believed in humors, in his case three: salt, sulfur, and mercury, but he believed illness was caused by one humor separating from the other two when an external agent attacked the body. In other words, according to Paracelsus, illness was caused by something outside rather than inside the body.

Paracelsus, however, never abandoned the methods of alchemy: solution, evaporation, precipitation, and distillation. Rather, he urged alchemists, “Stop making gold; instead find medicines.”

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