Skip Navigation Bar
 

Aftermath

Interior view of a laboratory: an old man, seated on a stool and peering into a pot, is observing the reaction of a substance that is being agitated through the application of a bellows manipulated by his young assistant; a furnace is to the right.
Artist's conception of a mid-seventeenth-century laboratory. Print, Francois V. Mieris, 1635-1681, NLM collection.

As chemistry became academically respectable for its cures and remedies, its medical emphasis began to change. And as it did so, in the late seventeenth century, the original concepts of the Paracelsians were gradually modified and diluted. One-time Paracelsians such as Jean Baptiste van Helmont embraced the chemical philosophy no less strenuously than did Paracelsus, but they moved on to such areas as chemical physiology. Meanwhile, for Robert Boyle and others in the age of Newton, the decline in authority of the ancient authors made way for a new mathematical and mechanistic approach to science and medicine.

Yet the effect of Paracelsus on medicine was enormous. This influence occurred almost entirely after his death, partially through his own works and partially through those of his followers who codified and expanded his views. His rejection of establishment medicine came at a time when many Galenic and other ancient medical texts had only recently been rediscovered. The attack on these texts was bound to result in a confrontation. A prime area of contention for the Paracelsians was that of the reform of medical education. But beyond this the chemists questioned the traditional elements, sought a principle of cure based on similitude rather than contrariety, and demanded the introduction of an armory of metallic based remedies. Their rejection of humoral explanations was anathema to the medical establishment, and their frequent use of mystical and fundamentalist interpretations strongly mixed with hermeticism set them apart from other physicians.

By the mid-seventeenth century there had been almost a century of debate, but many of the medical views of Paracelsus were to prevail in the end. The academic acceptance of chemistry by physicians surely was one of the chief accomplishments of his school. Beyond this, the significance of his opening of medical thought to this new approach can be compared with that of the influence of Copernicus on astronomy and physics during the same period.