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The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball ****

It’s very easy to dismiss those who laboured in areas we now recognize as science in medieval times. Some historians of science, with a brief nod to the developments in the Arab world prior to 1200, jump straight from the ancient Greeks to Galileo. But to do so reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, an incomprehension that results from looking back at medieval thinkers with a modern agenda. Strip away that bias, and surprising steps were taken.
When this reviewer suggested that the 13th century friar Roger Bacon could be regarded as the first scientist, it was argued in reviews that I was over-enthusiastic about the subject and had over-played Bacon’s significance. After all, he wasn’t a very good scientist. Theology was central to his worldview and he tended to overvalue the wisdom of the ancients, even though he argued against relying on received wisdom, and in favour of the importance of experiment. But surely the point is that the first scientist would not be a good scientist – like the dog walking on its hind legs, what’s amazing is not that he did it well, but that he did it at all.
In Philip Ball’s bulging book we are introduced to Paracelsus, the medical equivalent of Roger Bacon, if operating somewhat later. Like Bacon, Paracelsus become legend, gaining plenty of fictional notoriety. Like Bacon also, he operated in a world where theology was the starting point of science, and like Bacon it’s easy to dismiss his contribution because he was an early worker – he did get things wrong, but then it would be very strange if he didn’t.
There is one fundamental difference, though. In one sense, Bacon, born more that 270 years before Paracelsus (more properly Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim) was the more modern in his thought. Paracelsus thought that magic was a part of the natural world. Bacon despised magic, and made it clear that any “wonders” were the work of man’s hand or natural. Paracelsus was an outgoing, coarse, dramatic public performer – Bacon was an irascible Franciscan friar with little time for other people.
Philip Ball does a great job of putting us into Paracesus’ world. He gives lots of context and background, and makes it clear that, given where he started from, Paracelsus has been underrated. Yes, he believed many ridiculous things. Yes, he was more likely to kill a patient than help them. But his attitude, scorning the physicians who couldn’t be bothered to examine patients and believed it beneath them to touch a diseased person, and his approach showed that he was on the tipping point between magic and science. From Ball’s lucid text it becomes plain that it would be easy to see Paracelsus on either side of the magic/science divide. Of course life isn’t so neat – he was both.
The only criticism, one I’ve mentioned with Ball before, is that the book is unnecessarily long. If this is intended to be popular history of science, there was no need to drag it out to such length, and a little judicious editing could have made it much more approachable. Medieval science is never going to appeal to as many people as Newton or Einstein – but it is truly fascinating, a view into a very different world that gave birth to our own – and the more people who find out about it, the better, because it’s a part of history that has tended to be hidden. Full marks, then, to Ball for opening it up.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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