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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pirouetting physician, 21 Aug. 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
If any age in human history can be called "pivotal" it must be the 16th Century C.E. Nearly every major social norm, from national law through religion endured significant upheavals. It was the time of Martin Luther, Erasmus, Copernicus, Thomas More, Calvin and a host of others. A nearly forgotten element was that of medicine. For centuries, the hold of Galen, through the Church, had dominated medical thought and procedures. Not until this pivotal time did a figure emerge that seriously challenged this monopoly. Philip Ball has produced a lively and informative biography of Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim - the man we know as "Paracelsus".

We don't call doctors unless we're ill or need a golfing partner. In the Renaissance, it was a risky venture to place yourself in a medic's hands. Doctors worked from scholastic dogmas, rarely investigating symptoms except to fit them to rules laid down centuries before. Many diagnoses were done through the visual inspection of a urine sample. A "prescription" was then derived from what Galen or other Roman Empire "authorities" recommended. Paracelsus castigated this "hands-off" approach to medicine. In fact, he did so with such vehemence that the term "bombastic" is said to derive from his name. For him, the body was the best healer. Conditions should be established that would allow Nature to work its own cures. "Establishment" doctors rejected this approach almost universally, causing Paracelsus to lead a peripatetic life. Moving from town to town, he would lecture against normal medical practice, even while performing cures of his own. This wasn't "faith healing:" since Paracelsus was a keen student of herbs and natural medicines.

This all sounds revolutionary and far-sighted even for Renaissance Europe. Ball shows that simple assessments of Paracelsus, or even changing medical outlooks, have no place in dealing with this radical healer. Although he rejected long-held dogmas, Paracelsus also held fast to even less credible ideas. He was a dabbler in magic and a leading student of alchemy. Alchemy had many aspects, and some modern scholars credit it with laying the groundwork for modern chemistry. Ball doesn't go quite that far, noting that the quest for gold from other metals dominated the alchemist's programme. Theophrastus spelled out many of his ideas in a series of works, nearly all of which were published after his death. Ball confronted an immense task in dealing with the works of this complex figure. He handles it well, and is fully conscious of his subject's shortcomings. Some of the writings are self-contradictory, while others spend more ink on castigating his enemies, that Paracelsus left many readers scratching their heads to make sense of it. In dealing with alchemy, for example, the "militant medic" launched into the realm of cosmology, trying to tie together mundane aspects of doctoring with astrological themes. It's a bad fit in any circumstance, but it shows clearly why Paracelsus is an important transition figure.

The many and varied elements of Paracelsus' life and work make it difficult, if not impossible to assess him. Certainly, as Ball demonstrates, he had both enemies and supporters enough in his own time and later. Where some praise him as the liberator of medicine from the thrall of "classical" dogmas, others dismiss him as misguided or a charlatan. Yet, as Ball makes clear, this radical reforming did provide a foundation for modern medicine. Although hardly gifted with foresight, Theophrastus von Hohenheim disrupted the locked view of doctoring that would ultimately overturn fixed thinking. Nature, in whatever way proved best, was now consulted to aid doctors in treating the sick. That legacy alone should grant him respectful immortality. Ball has given us a work ably explaining what science and scientists have endured to advance our thinking beyond simple formulas. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading, 9 Sept. 2007
This review is from: The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Paperback)
The world that Paracelsus knew is thankfully long gone. In its place is a world that takes its lead from modern science which is based largely on experience, experiment, criticism and empiricism and science itself moves forward upon the basis of the scientific method. But it was not always like that and this book does a remarkably good job of trying to bring to life a time in the late middle ages that modern science has forgotten, or perhaps more accurately, would like to forget.

Modern science has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, 4th century writings, Roman theories, natural magic, Christian theology, astrology, folk tales, alchemy and all manner of mediaeval claptrap and mumbo-jumbo that mostly would have us in hysterics today. When Paracelsus was alive though it was believed and largely taken as true. To stand up and say such and such was not true, or worse still to write it down and publish it was not generally taken as excepted modes of behaviour. In fact it would often put your well being in jeopardy as Paracelsus found out all too often. Rather confirming what was already understood underpinned the thinking of the time. Modern science emerged over several centuries from this mishmash and Ball manages to give a real flavour of what Paracelsus must have encountered. This is a book that should be enjoyed as much as it informs.

Paracelsus himself was a remarkable character of contradictions who can best be described as a failure. Paracelsus' writings are not particularly important either to the history of medicine or to science but it is the spirit in which they were written, the rants as well as the more lucid bits. It is not hard to see Paracelsus as a Till Eulenspeigel type figure or even as a Pierrot, and a good deal of this comes over in Ball's portrait. But it was as a failure who managed to ignite in those who came after him the wish to enquire and not be put off by those who would suppress enquiry that Paracelsus deserves to be remembered.

The life and work of Paracelsus could be written and appraised in a book one quarter the size of this, but that is not what makes this book worth the effort. The background to modern science is in short supply and it is worth getting to know more about it. In the process you will realise that our modern comforts should not be taken for granted and it is not hard to find areas of the world even today some things are not much further advanced than those encountered in this book.

A good read on what could be a difficult subject.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As much a survey of the period as a biography., 31 Aug. 2008
By 
Paul Macdonald "mac20584" (North Wales) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Paperback)
The history of scientific thought has always been a subject which has enamoured me. The story of how mankind, the most psychologically sophisticated organism to have multiplied under the Sun, reared himself from dark millennia of ignorance, to fashion, in the last two centuries or so, a scientific theory which can explain some of the most eminently complex natural phenomena which encompass him and reside within him, is a fascinating one. And the age which just preludes his expanding comprehension of the universe, the Renaissance, is arguably the most fascinating epoch of this long quest for knowledge; it is a period of transition, when people, like the subject of this biography, began to shun the dogma of long-dead Greek philosophers, and placed increasing value on the methods of empiricism, which, of course, anticipated modern, experimental scientific technique. However, despite this emerging progressiveness, philosophic and scholastic conservatism stubbornly resisted a revision of its outdated teachings. The physician Paracelsus, an opponent to this academic adulation of Galen, Hippocrates and other classical thinkers was a major force of this revolution, and is the subject of Philip Ball's great little biography.

Although seen by many as a reformer, it is important that we do not over-emphasise Paracelsus's achievements, although there were some notable ones. 15th and 16th century Europe was still a heavily superstitious place, where alchemy was a credible pursuit, where magic, demons and witches were still discussed with the utmost seriousness and candour by respected academics. And all these falsehoods coloured almost every facet of Paracelsus's writings and philosophy, from his chemistry (or alchemy), biology, astronomy/astrology, medicine and theology. This is not to say that he was small-minded or foolish, he was simply a product of his time; the reason his name has fallen out of favour, so to speak, is that his contribution to modern science is, in reality, negligible, aside the likes of Copernicus, Vesalius, who really did shape modern theory.

So why study him? Firstly, he was a central figure in that period of science's history, and that he did challenge scholastic orthodoxy, and proposed reforms to medicine, much of which's spirit survives now, even if his own theories were really as erroneous as those he fought. Secondly, he is an immensely interesting character; bombastic, uncouth, arrogant, proud, but also committed, and propelled by a genuine desire to do good; and Ball's biography does a fantastic job of presenting a fair picture of, I suspect, a seriously misunderstood man.

Ball's lucid, penetrating and richly illustrated study is a pleasure to read; although to regard it as a strict biographical study would be misleading. It is the narrative of Paracelsus's life which binds the book in place, but it is as much a study of the Renaissance itself, with lengthy asides on various topics including Luther and the Protestant movement, medicine and disease, humanism, alchemy and many other digressions. These never become tiresome; indeed, they form a pivotal portion of the book, and all are relevant to the case of Paracelsus. There was hardly a dry moment; the abundant quotations which Ball extracts from Paracelsus's explosive tracts act as a fine illustration of Paracelsus's thought and Ball's analysis of these were informed and insightful. A balanced picture of the mystic is offered; Paracelsus, throughout history and up to today has had many antagonists and supporters, and Ball finds a comfortable position between the two camps, he both sympathises and criticises Paracelsus; loathed by the medical orthodoxy of the time, he was forced to travel around Europe after being banished from various towns, although Ball recognises that, to a large extent, this exile was due in large part to his inflammatory attitude and often immense arrogance; Ball's impartiallity is refreshing and strengthens the credibility of the book. The prospect of this book being bettered seems entirely remote; Ball's execution of this study is impressive indeed.

To anybody interested in this time of mysticism and magic, when demonology and astrology was as respectable a study as chemistry, medicine and astronomy; where eccentrics and wizards toured this tumultuous continent with tales of fantasy and folklore; or even a look at medical, chemical and theological history, look no further than this wonderful and entertaining little book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wide ranging history of the birth of medicine, 20 May 2007
By 
Mark Shackelford "mark shackelford" (Worthing, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Paperback)
This books fleshes out the limited knowledge of its subject with a delightfully broad exploration of Paracelsus' life and times. This is the era when astrology was becoming astronomy, and alchemy becoming chemistry - and the books of the ancients were no longer treated as unassailable truths. Paracelsus may not have been a "proper" doctor in the modern sense, but his ideas and writings heralded the modern world. Philip Ball's book is written with a light touch but paints a detailed picture of a world struggling out of the Dark Ages and into the light of the Renaissance.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Devil's Doctor, 9 Oct. 2012
This review is from: The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Paperback)
Parcelsus remains an important man in the history of medical research and in Basel where he taught.

The book is well-written.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading, 11 Sept. 2007
The world that Paracelsus knew is thankfully long gone. In its place is a world that takes its lead from modern science which is based largely on experience, experiment, criticism and empiricism and science itself moves forward upon the basis of the scientific method. But it was not always like that and this book does a remarkably good job of trying to bring to life a time in the late middle ages that modern science has forgotten, or perhaps more accurately, would like to forget.

Modern science has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, 4th century writings, Roman theories, natural magic, Christian theology, astrology, folk tales, alchemy and all manner of mediaeval claptrap and mumbo-jumbo that mostly would have us in hysterics today. When Paracelsus was alive though it was believed and largely taken as true. To stand up and say such and such was not true, or worse still to write it down and publish it was not generally taken as excepted modes of behaviour. In fact it would often put your well being in jeopardy as Paracelsus found out all too often. Rather confirming what was already understood underpinned the thinking of the time. Modern science emerged over several centuries from this mishmash and Ball manages to give a real flavour of what Paracelsus must have encountered. This is a book that should be enjoyed as much as it informs.

Paracelsus himself was a remarkable character of contradictions who can best be described as a failure. Paracelsus' writings are not particularly important either to the history of medicine or to science but it is the spirit in which they were written, the rants as well as the more lucid bits. It is not hard to see Paracelsus as a Till Eulenspeigel type figure or even as a Pierrot, and a good deal of this comes over in Ball's portrait. But it was as a failure who managed to ignite in those who came after him the wish to enquire and not be put off by those who would suppress enquiry that Paracelsus deserves to be remembered.

The life and work of Paracelsus could be written and appraised in a book one quarter the size of this, but that is not what makes this book worth the effort. The background to modern science is in short supply and it is worth getting to know more about it. In the process you will realise that our modern comforts should not be taken for granted and it is not hard to find areas of the world even today some things are not much further advanced than those encountered in this book.

A good read on what could be a difficult subject.
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