Paracelsus: The Beginning of a Medical Revolution

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – better known today as Paracelsus – entered the medical scene of Basel in 1527 like a fresh breeze and left, less than a year later, in a storm. Despite its brevity, Paracelsus’ stay in Basel marked a revolutionary turn in the history of medicine.

Johann Froben, famous book printer and humanist with printing presses in the Totengässlein (“Death Alley”) in Basel, was suffering from a bad leg. His doctors were confounded, and there was talk of amputation. Then, a miracle happened. It appeared in the human form of Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a wandering physician originally from Einsiedeln in Switzerland. He loftily diagnosed a circulatory disorder and had the grateful Froben walking again in a matter of days.

A Centre of Humanism

At the time, Basel was one of Europe’s leading cities for publishing and printing, as well as a centre of Humanism. Well-known humanists, artists, and reformers that frequented Basel included Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sebastian Brant, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Johannes Oecolampad. After Johann Froben’s quick recovery, Basel’s intellectuals were eager for Theophrastus von Hohenheim to stay on as the city physician.

While his innovative approach to medical practice and teaching attracted great interest, his criticism of outmoded beliefs and traditions also made him enemies. In 1527, the university in Basel was still a stronghold of opposition to the ideas of the Reformation, and von Hohenheim was seen as a quack and a partisan for the Protestant cause. He was able to assert himself at first, but gradually his position weakened. By the end of 1527, he had lost all support. Von Hohenheim fled Basel secretly in February 1528, never to return.

The New Faces of Medicine

Nevertheless, he left a powerful legacy. Andreas Vesalius took up his call for a closer link between theory and practice in medicine just a few years later. Vesalius’ famous lecture on human anatomy at the University of Basel in 1543 involved the public dissection of corpses. In the same year, Vesalius’ influential work on the human anatomy was published in Basel by Johannes Oporinus, a former employee of Johann Froben and assistant of Paracelsus. The study and practice of medicine and anatomy flourished in Basel, eventually leading to an interest in chemical processes in medicine, an advance that revolutionized treatment and furthered the development of pharmacy.

After his flight from Basel, Paracelsus continued his travels in Europe until his death in 1541. Though he was met with envy and suspicion as well as enthusiasm during his brief stay in Basel, it was here that he put his novel ideas into words, boldly and publicly. During this period, the seed was planted for many of his later publications. And many of his major works emerged, of course, from the printing presses of the city on the Rhine.


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