Anton Mesmer and Samuel Hahnemann

Mesmer's early career

Many people think of Mesmerism and hypnosis as simply different names for the same thing. There is however rather more to it than that, and the story of Mesmerism is worth looking at in its own right, since it exemplifies many of the difficulties that attend the attempt to introduce an unconventional form of treatment into orthodox medical practice. There are also some curious and interesting resemblances between the careers of Mesmer and Hahnemann which do not generally seem to have been noticed.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 - 1815) was almost an exact contemporary of Hahnemann (1755 - 1843). He grew up on the shores of Lake Constance, on the border between Germany and Switzerland, in a Swabian town called Iznang. His father was gamekeeper to the Bishop of Constance and Mesmer was brought up as a Catholic; indeed, as a youth he contemplated entering the priesthood, but he soon realized that he lacked a vocation. For a year he studied law, but in 1760 he became a medical student in Vienna, where he qualified MD and PhD in 1767 at the fairly advanced age of 32.

Mesmer was thus, like Hahnemann, well grounded in the science of his day, and he showed no leaning towards occultism or mysticism. It is therefore somewhat ironic that his name should have become linked with these qualities.

His early career after qualifying was, in fact, conventional enough. He married a rich aristocratic widow, ten years older than himself, and thanks to his wife's connections soon established a prosperous practice in Vienna, where he met and became friendly with the young Mozart and his father. Not until the 1770s did he begin to move in the direction that was later to bring him such renown and notoriety.

A young girl called Franz Oesterlin, a relative of Frau Mesmer, became Mesmer's patient. She was suffering from symptoms that would now be regarded as psychological. In order to make herself more easily available for treatment she came to stay with the Mesmers, and as he studied her case Mesmer was led to formulate a remarkable theory.

Discovery of animal magnetism

Mesmer's doctoral thesis had been concerned with the influence of gravitation on human physiology. He had suggested that gravitation depends on a subtle universal fluid which he imagined to pervade the whole cosmos, including living organisms, and to set up 'tides' in the bloodstream and nerves of human beings.

This thesis, which in later years he referred to as "The Influence of the Planets on the Human Body", sounds as if it should be concerned with astrology, but Mesmer intended it to be fully scientific. Ideas of this kind were acceptable scientific currency in the eighteenth century, and indeed Mesmer had lifted whole sections of his theory from the writings of the respected English physician Richard Mead.

Contemplating Franzl's symptoms, he made the 'obvious' connection. He now understood what was causing the ebb and flow of her attacks: nothing else than the gravitational tides he had described in his dissertation.

How to use this discovery to effect a cure? Why, by magnetism. Magnets were already in use by at least some doctors, though admittedly this was a contentious subject; and of course magnets, with their polar attraction and repulsion, could be plausibly supposed to act in the same general way as gravitation.

Mesmer's friend Maximilien Hell, professor of astronomy at the University, had a number of magnets made for him in the astronomy department, with different shapes according to the part of the body they were intended to treat. The effects were gratifying. As soon as the magnets were applied to Franzl she had an immediate strong reaction followed by a dramatic improvement, and after further experiments Mesmer convinced himself that he had succeeded in controlling the ebb and flow of the universal gravitational fluid.

Almost immediately after this, Mesmer quarrelled with Hell about who should have credit for the discovery. Hell claimed that it was the magnets themselves that had effected the cure, but Mesmer insisted that their only role was to channel the cosmic flow through the patient. It was in fact unnecessary to use magnets, he discovered; objects made of cloth or wood worked just as well.

The explanation, he concluded, was that he himself was touching them; he was an 'animal magnet' who acted on objects and people in an analogous way to a mineral magnet acting on metal. ('Animal' in this context meant something like 'spiritual'.) Mesmer now tried to persuade the medical Establishment in Vienna of the validity of his discovery. In this he was unsuccessful, but Franzl made a complete recovery and eventually married Mesmer's stepson. (Mozart, in a letter, records a meeting with this lady, now grown stout and the mother of three children.) Mesmer's fame increased, and so did his practice; in 1755 and 1776 he travelled in Swabia, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Hungary, treating the famous.

He was less successful in the case of Maria Theresa Paradies, a girl suffering from psychologically caused blindness since the age of three who was nevertheless a professional pianist. She had been treated with the conventional drastic methods of the time - bleeding, purging, blistering - and also with some experimental techniques, including the application of a tight plaster helmet and painful electrotherapy.

At first Mesmer was successful; Maria Theresa recovered her sight, at least temporarily. But the ophthalmologist who had failed to cure her was, not unnaturally, jealous of Mesmer, and claimed the cure was not genuine. Eventually, for reasons that are unclear, the patient's father reacted violently against Mesmer, finally appearing at his house, sword in hand and demanding that the treatment of his daughter be stopped.

Partly, at any rate, the explanation for the fiasco is that as the girl's sight improved her piano-playing deteriorated; she ceased to be so much of a public curiosity and was in danger of losing a pension that he was in receipt of from the Empress. Perhaps, too, there were other causes connected with the Paradies' family life (child sexual abuse?) which may have been responsible for the girl's initial blindness. At any rate she relapsed; eventually she achieved a reasonably successful career as pianist and composer, but she never again recovered her sight.

Mesmer, meanwhile, was the centre of a scandal. Many people suspected him - almost certainly unjustly, since Mesmer seems to have had little interest in sex - of having had improper relations with Maria Theresa, and the hostility of the Viennese doctors increased. In 1778 Mesmer, by now informally separated from his wife, left Vienna for Paris.

Mesmer in France

Once established in Paris, Mesmer began a long series of feuds with the French medical Establishment. The Academy of Sciences, in spite of attending demonstrations, were unconvinced by the animal magnetism theory. Mesmer therefore approached the newly founded Royal Society of Medicine, which he hoped would be more amenable than the long-established Paris Faculty of Medicine.

His initial demonstration at his suite in the Place Vendome was not well received. In 1778, therefore, he moved out of Paris and set up a clinic at a nearby town, Creteil, where he had more room to treat the large number of patients who flocked to him. Some received individual therapy, while the less seriously ill or the convalescent were treated in groups. For this purpose Mesmer invented the baquet, a large wooden tub containing bottles of magnetic metal, stone, glass and so forth. Mesmer had magnetized all these items himself, by touching or pointing at them. The baquet had iron rods projecting from it; the patients pressed these against the affected parts of their bodies, and they also held hands to allow the animal magnetism to flow through the group.

Many grateful patients wrote testimonials to the efficacy of the treatment, but the Royal Society was unimpressed and refused to attend the demonstrations. However, Mesmer was more successful with the Paris Faculty of Medicine, a prominent member of which, Charles Deslon, became a convinced believer in animal magnetism. He had himself magnetized, served as Mesmer's assistant, and eventually established his own clinic.

Having moved back again to Paris, Mesmer now accepted Deslon's suggestion that they should try to gain the endorsement of the Paris Faculty. Three prominent members of the Faculty agreed to watch Mesmer at work . They were shown a number of remarkable cures, but remained obstinately unconvinced.

Mesmer now gave up hope of obtaining the Establishment's approval, and concentrated on his clinical work. It is important to notice that he distinguished between what we would now call psychological and physical disorders, and refused to treat the physical. His patients ranged from the rich and aristocratic to the poor; everyone received an equal a mount of attention and those who could not afford to pay were treated free. One feature of Mesmer's methods which attracted a good deal of unfavourable comment was the 'Mesmeric crisis'.

Some patients, especially those suffering from more serious symptoms, experienced nervous trembling, nausea, occasionally delirium or convulsions. Mesmer regarded these as an inevitable accompaniment of the process of normalization of the flow of animal magnetism, and he had special padded 'crisis rooms' in which patients could throw themselves about without hurting themselves, while Mesmer or his assistants gave them individual attention.

The depth of the crisis naturally varied from case to case, but Mesmer insisted that some degree of crisis, no matter how slight or transient, would always be found if it was looked for carefully enough. Even more dramatic than the crisis, however, was the Mesmeric trance. Mesmer discovered this phenomenon only after he had been practising his method for some considerable time; the trance then became for him a method of inducing the crisis. Another of his followers, the Marquis de Puysegur, discovered that it was possible to communicate with people in trance, getting them to answer questions, remember long-forgotten childhood events, and so on. The Marquis came to believe that it was possible to produce cures without a crisis, but Mesmer, constrained by the demands of his theory, did not agree.

Was Mesmer a hypnotist?

It is generally held that Mesmer was practising hypnotherapy, but it is probably more accurate to say that he was a shamanistic healer whose methods certainly included hypnotherapy but were not identical with it. Mesmer's conduct during therapy sessions was highly impressive, being intended to augment the drama of the situation as much as possible. His clinic was meticulously furnished to maximize suggestion: the light was dim, everyone conversed in whispers, and music was used to alter the patients' mood according to what was required at each stage of the process. There were four baquets in the room, three for paying patients and the fourth for those being treated free.

Mesmer, as Master of Ceremonies, was elaborately dressed and carried a wand, which he pointed at patients or used to touch or stroke them. The patients gasped, twitched, went into trance, or experienced convulsions or catalepsy. Mesmer's assistants ministered to the more severely afflicted and if necessary brought them into one of the padded crisis rooms.

Disputes within Mesmerism

Although Mesmer made some influential converts, especially Deslon, he was eventually to break with almost all of them. He was autocratic and dictatorial (like Hahnemann) and would brook no opposition. A lawyer called Nicolas Bergasse became converted to Mesmerism and suggested to Mesmer the establishment of a private academy to propagate his ideas. The result was the grotesquely misnamed Societé de l'Harmonie.

The Society was secret. All the members had signed an undertaking that they would not pass on any part of Mesmer's teaching without his written permission, nor would they establish a clinic without such permission; they were permitted to treat only individual patients. It was this last condition that destroyed the Society within two years of its foundation in 1783.

The Society combined the roles of institute, medical school, and clinic. Students learnt the theory of Mesmerism and how to apply it in practice to patients. Schools were set up in Paris and also in several other cities in France, and thousands of pupils attended the courses. Bergasse took on much of the administration and became correspondingly powerful within the organization.

Meanwhile Mesmer's erstwhile assistant Deslon had set up on his own account, and in 1784 he was investigated by a royal commission. The committee was convinced by his cures but denied, once again, the reality of animal magnetism. Another commission, set up by the Faculty of Medicine, reached the same conclusion. Mesmer objected that it was he, rather than Deslon, who should have been investigated, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Bergasse, Puysegur, and other disciples of Mesmer now began to make public the knowledge of animal magnetism. Mesmer was furious, and the Society dissolved amid scenes of rancour and confusion. In any case the Revolution was coming and Mesmerism began to be overtaken by politics; Bergasse was later to adapt the doctrine of animal magnetism to support his views on revolutionary politics.

Mesmer kept aloof from politics. He travelled about in Europe for a number of years, though he was back in France from 1798 to 1802; he sued for his losses under the Revolution and was awarded enough to keep him in reasonable comfort for the rest of his life.

Declining years

He now recommenced his wanderings, and began to develop more outlandish ideas than he had entertained hitherto, starting to speculate on what we today would call paranormal phenomena and extrasensory perception. During the trance, he said, the mind comes into contact not only with other minds but also with the cosmos, and so in principle is capable of acquiring universal knowledge. In this way it is possible for seers and fortune-tellers to foretell the future. He published these ide as in a book in 1799, and as a result gained the reputation of an occultist. Mesmer died in Switzerland in 1815. He was in his eighty-first year; a gypsy in Paris had foretold long ago that he would die at this age, and he believed her, so he was prepared for the end when it came.

Assessment of Mesmer's ideas

In his own terms, Mesmer must be judged to have failed. His dominating ambition was to achieve scientific recognition for his theory of animal magnetism and this did not occur. His methods of treatment, however, were reinterpreted as suggestion and were rechristened hypnosis or hypnotherapy, and in this form they were taken up by, among others, Jean Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, and Sigmund Freud (although Freud later abandoned hypnosis). Although a faint aura of the disreputable has clung to hypnosis, there has always been a minority of doctors and psychiatrists who have valued and practised it. There is still a Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis in Britain.

Like Mesmer himself, some people have been attracted by the idea that hypnosis facilitates telepathy and clairvoyance. Numerous books, some by doctors, appeared in the mid-nineteenth century describing remarkable cases of thought transmission and other marvels during trance. It is interesting, however, that Mesmer's name is not mentioned at all in some of these books; the aura of charlatanry could not be dissipated . Matters were not helped by the development of hypnosis as a stage entertainment. There was also the fear that hypnotists might be able to manipulate their subjects for their own purposes; Svengali might be fictional, but could there not be real-life Svengalis?

Mesmer regarded his ideas as thoroughly scientific, although admittedly he did later flirt with the occult. In the nineteenth century hypnosis was part of the stock-in-trade of occultists such as Helena P. Blavatski, the founder of Theosophy, and there is still a widespread belief that the hypnotic trance affords a way into hidden depths of the mind. And although the term animal magnetism is little used today, very similar ideas keep surfacing under other names: for example, Wilhelm Reich's "orgone energy".


The sixth edition of Hahnemann's textbook "The Organon" contains a number of approving references to the then topical subject of Mesmerism. Hahnemann apparently used Mesmeric techniques himself, and he made a connection in his mind between the 'vital force' which, he believed, brought about healing, and Mesmer's 'animal magnetism'. Writings by homeopaths in the nineteenth century make references to Mesmerism, but later generations of homoeopaths have made little of the connection, probably because of the reputation for charlatanry that later became attached to Mesmer's name.

The similarities between Mesmer and Hahnemann, both in career and in ideas, are surprisingly close.


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