Paracelsus was born in Egg, a village close to the Etzel Pass in Einsiedeln, Schwyz. He was born in a house right next to a bridge across the Sihl river (known as Teufelsbrücke). The historical house, dated to the 14th century, was destroyed in 1814. The Restaurant Krone now stands in its place. His father Wilhelm (d. 1534) was a chemist and physician, an illegitimate descendant of the Swabian noble family Bombast von Hohenheim. It has been suggested that Paracelsus' descent from the Bombast of Hohenheim family was his own invention, and that his father was in fact called Höhener and was a native of Gais in Appenzell, but it is plausible that Wilhelm was the illegitimate son of Georg Bombast von Hohenheim (1453–1499), commander of the Order of Saint John in Rohrdorf.
Paracelsus' mother was probably a native of the Einsiedeln region and a bondswoman of Einsiedeln Abbey, who before her marriage worked as superintendent in the abbey's hospital. Paracelsus in his writings repeatedly made references to his rustic origins and occasionally used Eremita (from the name of Einsiedeln, meaning "hermitage") as part of his name.
Paracelsus' mother probably died in 1502, after which Paracelsus' father moved to Villach, Carinthia where he worked as a physician, attending to the medical needs of the pilgrims and inhabitants of the cloister. Paracelsus was educated by his father in botany, medicine, mineralogy, mining, and natural philosophy. He also received a profound humanistic and theological education from local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul's Abbey in the Lavanttal. He specifically accounts for being tutored by Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim. At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 1515 or 1516.
The Louvre copy of the lost portrait by Quentin Matsys
source of the iconographic tradition of "fat" Paracelsus.
Between 1517 and 1524, he worked as a military surgeon, in Venetian service in 1522. In this capacity he travelled widely across Europe, and possibly as far as Constantinople.
He settled in Salzburg in 1524 but had to leave in the following year due to his support of the German Peasants' War. In 1525, he was active at the University of Freiburg.
In 1526, he bought the rights of citizenship in Strasbourg to establish his own practice. But soon after he was called to Basel to the sickbed of printer Johann Frobenius, reportedly curing him. During that time, the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam, also at the University of Basel, witnessed the medical skills of Paracelsus, and the two scholars initiated a letter dialogue on medical and theological subjects.
In 1527, Paracelsus was a licensed physician in Basel with the privilege of lecturing at the University of Basel. Basel at the time was a center of Renaissance humanism, and Paracelsus here came into contact with Erasmus of Rotterdam,
Wolfgang Lachner, and Johannes Oekolampad. Paracelsus' lectures at Basel university unusually were held in German, not Latin. He stated that he wanted his lectures to be available to everyone. He also published harsh criticism of the Basel physicians and apothecaries, creating political turmoil to the point of his life being threatened. In a display of his contempt for conventional medicine, Paracelsus publicly burned editions of the works of Galen and Avicenna. He was prone to many outbursts of abusive language, abhorred untested theory, and ridiculed anybody who placed more importance on titles than practice ('if disease put us to the test, all our splendor, title, ring, and name will be as much help as a horse's tail'). During his time as a professor at the University of Basel, he invited barber-surgeons, alchemists, apothecaries, and others lacking academic background to serve as examples of his belief that only those who practiced an art knew it: 'The patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.' Paracelsus was compared with Martin Luther because of his openly defiant acts against the existing authorities in medicine. Paracelsus rejected that comparison. Famously Paracelsus said, "I leave it to Luther to defend what he says and I will be responsible for what I say. That which you wish to Luther, you wish also to me: You wish us both in the fire." Being threatened with an unwinnable lawsuit, he left Basel for Alsace in February 1528.
In Alsace, Paracelsus took up the life of an itinerant physician once again. After staying in Colmar with
Lorenz Fries , and briefly in Esslingen, he moved to Nuremberg in 1529. His reputation went before him, and the medical professionals excluded him from practicing.
The name Paracelsus is first attested in this year, used as "pseudonym" for the publication of a Practica of political-astrological character in Nuremberg. Pagel (1982) supposes that the name was intended for use as the author of non-medical works, while his real name Theophrastus von Hohenheim was used for medical publications. The first use of Doctor Paracelsus in a medical publication was in 1536, as the author of the Grosse Wundartznei. The name is usually interpreted as either a latinization of Hohenheim (based on celsus "high, tall") or as the claim of "surpassing Celsus". It has been argued that the name was not the invention of Paracelsus himself, who would have been opposed to the humanistic fashion of Latinized names, but was given to him by his circle of friends in Colmar in 1528. It is difficult to interpret but does appear to express the "paradoxical" character of the man, the prefix "para" suggestively being echoed in the titles of Paracelsus' main philosophical works, Paragranum and Paramirum (as it were "beyond the grain" and "beyond wonder"); a paramiric treatise having been announced by Paracelsus as early as 1520.
The great medical problem of this period was syphilis, then-recently imported from the West Indies, and running rampant as a pandemic completely untreated. Paracelsus vigorously attacked the treatment with guaiac wood as useless, a scam perpetrated by the Fugger of Augsburg as the main importers of the wood in two publications on the topic. When his further stay in Nuremberg had become impossible, he retired to Beratzhausen, hoping to return to Nuremberg and publish an extended treatise on the "French sickness", but its publication was prohibited by a decree of the Leipzig faculty of medicine, represented by Heinrich Stromer, a close friend and associate of the Fugger family.
In Beratzhausen, Paracelsus prepared Paragranum, his main work on medical philosophy, completed 1530. Moving on to Saint Gall, he then completed his Opus Paramirum in 1531, which he dedicated to Joachim Vadian. From Saint Gall, he moved on to the land of Appenzell, where he was active as lay preacher and healer among the peasantry. In the same year, he also visited the mines in Schwaz and Hall in Tyrol, working on his book on miners' diseases. He moved on to Innsbruck, where he was once again barred from practicing. He passed Sterzing in 1534, moving on to Meran, Veltlin, and St. Moritz, which he praised for its healing springs. In Meran, he also came in contact with the socio-religious programs of the anabaptists. He visited Pfäfers Abbey, dedicating a separate pamphlet to its baths (1535). He passed Kempten, Memmingen, Ulm, and Augsburg in 1536. He finally managed to publish his Die grosse Wundartznei ("The Great Surgery Book"), printed in Ulm, Augsburg and Frankfurt in this year.
His Astronomia magna (also known as Philosophia sagax) was completed in 1537, but published only in 1571. It is a treatise on hermeticism, astrology, divination, theology, and demonology, and it laid the basis of Paracelsus' later fame as a "prophet". His motto Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest ("Let no man belong to another who can belong to himself") is inscribed on a 1538 portrait by Augustin Hirschvogel.
Death and legacy
In 1541, Paracelsus moved to Salzburg, probably on the invitation of Ernest of Bavaria, where he died on 24 September. He was buried in St Sebastian cemetery in Salzburg. His remains were relocated inside St Sebastian church in 1752.
After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and his therapies became more widely known and used. His autographs have been lost, but fortunately many of his works which remained unpublished during his lifetime were edited by Johannes Huser of Basel during 1589–1591. His works were frequently reprinted and widely read during the late 16th to early 17th century, and although his "occult" reputation remained controversial, his medical contributions were universally recognized, with e.g. a 1618 pharmacopeia by the Royal College of Physicians in London including "Paracelsian" remedies.
The late 16th century also saw substantial production of Pseudo-Paracelsian writing, especially letters attributed to Paracelsus, to the point where biographers find it impossible to draw a clear line between genuine tradition and legend.