The Contrasting Ideas of Paracelsus and Vesalius on the Concepts of Anatomy

In the early to late 16th century, the writings of Paracelsus and the Galenists, namely Andreas Vesalius, gave the impression that they inhabited very different intellectual worlds with very different, and sometimes opposing, ideas about how the human body works, how one goes about studying it, and how one goes about healing it. One concept on which Paracelsus and Vesalius had almost completely contrasting ideas on was “anatomy”. The intellectual rift separating the medicine of Paracelsus from that of Vesalius can be explained with the differences in their ideas of what “anatomy” was.

More specifically, it can be explained through their differing ideas in physiology, pathology, and therapy.

Paracelsus’ definition of “anatomy” was centered around the analysis and re- remembrance of the original knowledge inborn in man, revealed by nature. The Paracelsian concept of anatomy could not be truly understood if one did not have a firm understanding on the nourishment for each individual body part. Paracelsus also strongly believed in learning by doing, claiming that man “cannot be taught medicine by hearsay or by reading, but by learning” and that the reason one can not only recognize, but also experience the three substances lied in the “experiencing of Nature, its analysis, and the establishment of its properties,” because man is “taught by the Great World and not by man”.

In terms of physiology, Paracelsus has strong beliefs in the role of alchemy and transmutations in the distribution of nourishment to the respective body parts. In Paracelsus’ anatomy, nourishment comes in the form of the three basic elements that make up the human body: Sulphur, mercury, and salt.

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When these elements are combined, they “make a body and nothing else is added save life and that which pertains to it” (Paracelsus 6.4, 78).

In his anatomy, there is an alchemist in every person’s body that “uses the good qualities of our food for our nourishment and expels those things that would harm us” just as a “prince knows how to employ the best qualities of his servants and to leave the others alone” (Paracelsus 2.9, 72). The alchemist is the one who “dwells in the stomach” and “takes the good and changes it into a tincture,” which is then distributed though the body to “become blood and flesh” (Paracelsus 2.9, 72).

Paracelsian pathology focused heavily on tartars that build up in the organs. Asthma, coughing, phthisis, and hectic fever all derive from “tartar” in the lungs, which “should be coughed up,’  but if it remains in the lungs, it is “transformed into fine leaves, slate particles, and granules” and leads to the obstruction of the air tubes, causing disease (Paracelsus 6.25, 94).

Similarly in the cases of insanity, mania, and disorders of the mind, the cause lies in the tartar found in the “brain’s stomach,” and in diseases that are “commonly and erroneously attributed to the blood,” the kidney’s excrement that can be found in the urine as deposit, can give “verdict on kidney problems” (Paracelsus 6.26, 94).

As for the treatment of diseases, Paracelsian anatomy strictly follows a like-treats-like plan where the “remedy is identical with the agent that caused the disease” (Paracelsus 5.7, 74). Since all nourishment eventually “becomes ourselves,” Paracelsians argue that humans “eat ourselves into being” and therefore, the treatment must “match the disease” (Paracelsus 6.8, 80). In Paracelsian anatomy, cold shall not be a cure for heat, nor should heat cure the cold, because “like seeks its like” and it would be a “wild disorder if we were to seek our cure in contraries”.

Nature also plays a big part in the treatment of diseases. When medicine is administered, the physician must administer “all the virtue of heaven and earth, air and water” because one sickness in the body can mean death to all organs if not treated correctly. Therefore, medicine must contain “the whole firmament of both upper and lower spheres” (Paracelsus 6.15, 85).

Contrasting with the Paracelsian idea of anatomy, the Galenists had a completely different take on what anatomy should be. Andreas Vesalius defined anatomy as the study of the inner workings of the body that should be learned through observations and hands-on methods such as dissections. Vesalius strongly advocates for the use of dissections in defining anatomy, even going as far as calling out Galen, saying that it was obvious from the readings of his books that Galen himself “never dissected the body of a man who had recently died” (Vesalius, 136). He singles out the “pestilent doctors” who had “never even stood by at a dissection” and claims that no “demonstration is required of how necessary the knowledge of human parts is for us who have enlisted under the banner of medicine” (Vesalius, XXXV).

The Galenist take on physiology, as explained by Vesalius, is closer to the modern definition of anatomy. Vesalius identifies each structure of the body and its function. For example, when he writes about the path food takes to reach the stomach from outside the body. “Food is broken up by the teeth in order that the task may later be completed more easily. Food, as well as drink, passes from the mouth to the stomach as into a storehouse along a path called the esophagus or gullet” (Vesalius, 40). Vesalius also described the functions of many different structures within the body, such as the function of the veins and liver. “The veins suck out from the intestines (especially the small ones) whatever is suitable for the making of the blood, together with the aqueous and thin refuse of the stomach’s concoction, and carry it to the workshop of the liver, where the blood is made” (Vesalius, 41).

Though Vesalius has proven Galen’s physiological aspect of anatomy wrong, he still stuck to Galen’s adaptation of Hippocrates’ four humors as causes and treatments of disease. All diseases were caused by an imbalance of the four humors; blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Blood was wet and hot, black bile was dry and cold, yellow bile was hot and dry, and phlegm was wet and cold. Diseases that stemmed from too much blood had bleeding as a remedy, and as with all other diseases, the treatment was to give the patient more of the opposite of what their disease is made of. Hot and dry remedies were used to treat diseases that were cold and wet, and diseases that were dry and cold were treated with remedies that were wet and hot.

The differences in ideas of the ideal anatomy leads to not only an intellectual rift between Paracelsus and Vesalius, but it also creates a separation in the methods of teaching anatomy. With Paracelsus, who took on a more naturalistic approach to anatomy, his teachings involved students of anatomy to embrace nature itself to gain a deeper understanding of the nourishments and the idea of nature as the governing ruler of all physiology, pathology, and therapy. In Vesalius’ case, the teachings would be more instructional and hands-on experience in dissections that give the student an understanding of the placement and function of the organs in relation to the body as a whole.

Both Vesalius and Paracelsus were prominent figures in the history of “anatomy”. Vesalius had a more modern sense of anatomy, making their discoveries through a variety of dissections and observations of the structure and function of the human body, whereas Paracelsus had a more Hippocratic view of what anatomy truly was. Through the observations of the effect of nature on man, Paracelsus defines anatomy with a clear understanding of the nourishment for each body part and has recognized diseases as being caused by an imbalance in the required nourishment of the body.

Vesalius, however, did not focus heavily on diseases and their treatments, but on the body parts themselves and how their interactions with one another and with the body itself sustains normal bodily function. With Vesalius’ deep understanding of the physiology of the body and Paracelsus’ theories of nourishment in the pathology and treatment of the body, both variations of anatomy have contributed greatly in the journey to the discovery of the modern day understanding of anatomy.

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The Contrasting Ideas of Paracelsus and Vesalius on the Concepts of Anatomy. (2023, Jan 08). Retrieved from

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