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The Strange World Of Franz Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer was born in the German town of Iznang in 1734. At the age of 32, he completed his medical training at the University of Vienna with a dissertation on the influence of the planets on human disease. 

To do justice to Mesmer he was a great pioneer, notwithstanding the the bogus trappings which surrounded him and which discredited him forever in the eyes of scholars.  We owe to him the discovery of Animal Magnetism.

The evolution of Mesmer’s ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to develop hypnosis in 1842, his name being the root of the English verb ‘mesmerize’.  Mesmer was a doctor.  Thus it was a remedy that he claimed to have found.  A remedy invisible and imponderable, but of great efficacy and capable of curing all diseases.  Mesmer maintained that there existed an animal magnetism distinct from physical magnetism; but he combined with this some curious ideas drawn from his astrological studies in Vienna. In the memoir which he published 1779, he put forward the theory that “there is a mutual influence between the celestial bodies, the earth, and animate bodies”.

The modern history of hypnosis begins with a catholic priest who lived at Klosters, Switzerland.  Father Johann Gassner who used hypnotic techniques to perform what he considered to be exorcisms.   Mesmer was said to have watched a number of performances by Gassner in the early 1770’s.   Mesmer, unable to believe Gassner’s hypothesis that patients were possessed by demons, believed instead that the metal crucifix held by the Father was responsible for magnetizing the patient and hence developed his ideas and explanation of the results into a theory of animal magnetism.

In 1774, Mesmer produced an “artificial tide” in a patient by having her swallow a preparation containing iron, and then attaching magnets to various parts of her body. She reported feeling streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body and was relieved of her symptoms for several hours.  Mesmer did not believe that the magnets had achieved the cure on their own.  He felt that he had contributed animal magnetism, which had accumulated in his work, to her. He soon stopped using magnets as a part of his treatment.

In 1777 an 18 year old, blind, female pianist, singer, and composer Maria-Theresa von Paradies, was brought to Mesmer.  Her father had close relations to the court of the empress dowager, Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, with whom the girl was a favourite.  The girl had been blind since birth, but no physician had been able to find anything wrong with her eyes.

Under the hands of Mesmer mademoiselle Paradies gradually regained what she supposedly never had had.  She recovered her sight after treatment by Mesmer despite the fact that she had been under the care of Europe’s leading eye specialist for ten years without improvement.  The results obtained by Mesmer in his treatment of the blind pianist, seen in hindsight, was probably a result of the effect of hypnosis in psychotherapy. Something that he himslef could not dream of understanding, yet somehow quite by accident he can be credited with discovering.

The next and most spectacular episode began with Mesmer’s arrival in Paris in February 1778.  He set up a clinic, very lucrative, in the Place Vendôme and the nearby village of Créteil and then began an elaborate campaign to win recognition of hisdiscovery from France’s leading scientific bodies.  Helped by some influential converts and an ever increasing throng of patients who testified that they had been cured of everything from paralysiss to the “vapeurs”.  Mesmer seized the public’s imagination and alienated the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Academy of Sciences.  His patrons, however, included Louis XVI and members of his court.   Thus mesmerism became a cause célébre, a movement which eventually eclipsed Mesmer himself.

In 1784, without Mesmer requesting it, King Louis XVI appointed four members of the Faculty of Medicine as commissioners to investigate animal magnetism as practiced by Mesmer. At the request of these commissioners the King appointed five additional commissioners from the Royal Academy of Sciences.  These included the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly, the American ambassador Benjamin Franklin, and the physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.  The man who happened to be the inventory of the mechanical device that would forever change the way the death sentence was carried out in France.

The commission conducted a series of experiments aimed, not at determining whether Mesmer’s treatment worked, but whether he had discovered a new physical fluid.  The commission concluded that there was no evidence for such a fluid.  Whatever benefit the treatment produced was attributed to “imagination.”  Their incriminating findings forced Mesmer into a life of shame and disrepute.   In 1785 Mesmer left Paris. 

He was driven into exile soon after the investigations.  Despite criticism from his colleagues, it was the French revolution that ruined Mesmer’s practice.  Although many of his learned contemporaries regarded Mesmer’s methods as quackery, the world will nevertheless remember Dr. Mesmer, the man who pioneered a theory of  magnetism that laid the foundations of modern hypnosis and suggestion therapy.

A man born before his time the unknowing hypnotist died in obscurity in Switzerland in 1815, aged 81.