Life spiritý, stomach and brain: Paracelsus, van Helmont and the visceral neuropsychiatry

Bonn, Germany

The historiography of psychiatry generally starts with the period of Enlightenment and the French Revolution (Pinel) focusing mainly the establishment of lunatic asylums and the founding of scientific (academic) psychiatry on the basis of neuroscience since the early 19th century. The paper goes back to the early modern times, when the idea of a "visceral neuropsychiatry" predominated the theory and therapy of psychiatric disorders, best known in regard to the classical concept of melancholy. This approach was generally due to the tradition of humour pathology (Galenism). Paracelsus (Theophrast von Hohenheim, 1493/94-1541) emphasised the visceral viewpoint even more by pointing out, that the life spirit (archeus) in the stomach worked like an "inner alchemist" (vulcanus). Disorders, especially mental and neurological disorders, would be produced by an injured or weakened archeus. Johann Baptist van Helmont (1679-1744), the most important Paracelsian scholar of the 17th century, developed the idea of Paracelsus to a very sophisticated - in a certain sense psychosomatic - concept, wherein spleen and stomach were supposed to be the location of the life spirit constituting there the so-called "double government". All diseases including the mental diseases originated by imagination, when an evil image (idea morbosa) was activated by the misled archeus. Some hidden consequences respectively analogies of the Paracelsian "visceral neuropsychiatry" can be followed until medicine and neuropsychiatry about 1800 (e. g. Mesmer, Reil, Broussais).

Session III -- Psychiatric and Philosophical Aspects of the Neurosciences
Thursday, 14 June 2001, 1:30 pm

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany