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24 September 2008

On this day in history: Paracelsus died, 1541

Born Phillip von Hohenheim at the Swiss village of Maria Einsiedeln sometime in 1493, he followed his father into a career in medicine. Following the completion of his doctorate at the University of Ferrara, he worked as an itinerant physician and occasionally as a miner across Europe from the Netherlands to Russia. He ended up at the University of Basel where he held the chair of medicine.

After a legal row he was forced to leave the city after less than a year that he spent upsetting his fellow academics with his new ideas and refusal to accept traditional Galenic medical practice. Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals in the treatment of ailments and is credited with naming the element zinc. While he rejected some medical orthodoxies, such as magical theories, he maintained the hermetic idea of maintaining harmony within the body and was himself a practicing astrologer and alchemist.

After leaving Basel he travelled around Europe, Africa and Asia Minor as a seeker of occult knowledge, initially under the grand name of Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim and then simply as Paracelsus (meaning 'equal to Celsus' - an ancient greek who wrote a famous tract on medicine). He continued to write on medical and occult subjects but often had problem finding publishers for his works. He died at the age of 48 (possibly under suspicious circumstances) on 24th September 1541. In the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth Paracelsus' works achieved a wider acceptance and helped shape modern medicine.

To learn more see the Zurich Paracelsus Project pages hosted by the University of Zurich Institute and Museum for the History of Medicine.