MESMER, FRANZ ANTON (1734- 1815)


Mesmer, the controversial precursor of hypnotherapy, was born in Austria, studied philosophy at a Jesuit university in Bavaria, and medicine and theology at the University of Vienna. Early in his career he became interested in the teachings of the Renaissance physician Paracelsus (1493-1541), who had discarded the vague humoral theories of Hippocrates in favor of the view that mental illness was due to disturbing experiences and faulty personality development. While Mesmer was impressed by this theory, he was even more influenced by the treatment methods used by Paracelsus and the Flemish chemist Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644). Paracelsus applied medications derived from minerals which were supposed to capture beneficial magnetic forces emanating from the heavenly bodies, and van Helmont added the further point that magnetic fluids radiated from the human body and could be focused on the minds and bodies • of other people through an act of will. Both of these men assumed that the human body was inherently polarized into positive and negative, and if this polarity could be coupled with that of the Universal Spirit, the resulting power could be harnessed to cure illness.Mesmer wrote his doctoral thesis on the magnetic effects of the planets on the human body. He became convinced, however, that the celestial forces could be attracted and applied through the use of metallic magnets rather than the mineral medications of Paracelsus. A number of influences contributed to this theory. He was living at a time when new scientific discoveries were being made in electricity, optics, and magnetism, and many people sought to apply this knowledge to medical problems. Many of them were charlatans whose only interest was to conceal their quackery beneath the veneer of science. In England a showman named James Graham witnessed Benjamin Franklin’s experiments on lightning and then opened a Temple of Health in which his “patients” bathed in electrically magnetized water in a bizarre setting reminiscent of ancient religious rites. In the American colonies a physician, Elisha Perkins, patented a set of brass and copper tractors which were supposed to draw pain from the limbs, and even George Washington purchased a pair. But apparently Mesmer was more directly influenced by a demonstration in which Father Maximilian Hell claimed to cure an emotional illness by applying magnetized plates to the patient’s body.After witnessing Father Hell’s demonstration, Mesmer decided to try his hand at the art. One of his first cases was a woman who had been suffering from periodic attacks of neuralgia, convulsions, and agitation; but when he placed magnets over her stomach and legs, she was free from complaints for six hours. He then continued his treatments with other patients, offering the theory that the magnets captured the magnetic fluids from the atmosphere and revitalized their nervous systems. It apparently did not occur to Mesmer or his colleagues that his “cures” were actually effected through hypnosis, and that they were primarily due to the power of suggestion and the interpersonal relationship between doctor and patient.In treating his patients Mesmer adopted the mannerisms of a showman, and arrogantly claimed that through his techniques “the art of healing reaches its final perfection.” It is not surprising, therefore, that he was asked to appear before the Faculty of Medicine in Vienna to demonstrate and defend his techniques. After due deliberation, that body concluded that his cures were a product of imagination rather than magnetism, and he was expelled from the medical profession.Mesmer soon left Vienna for Paris, in the hope that his ideas would be accepted in the more liberal atmosphere of the French capital. There he constructed a “baquet,” a huge tub containing magnetized water, with metal rods protruding from all sides. His patients were required to sit in a closed circle around the baquet, hand in hand, and the rods were placed on the ailing parts of their bodies. To add to the effect, he dressed in a lilac robe and passed among his devotees, touching them with a magnetized wand. This procedure was designed to increase his rapport with the patients, thereby stimulating the flow of magnetic fluid, or “animal magnetism,” to a point where the patients reached a “grand crisis,” which apparently was a convulsive seizure. Mesmer maintained that the crisis was a major factor in achieving a cure.Mesmerism became the talk of Parisian society, and many famous people including Thomas Carlyle and Philippe Pinel attended his seances. But again he became the target of criticism, and the French government itself offered him 20,0 francs to reveal his “secret.” When he refused to tell what he actually did not know, he fell into further disrepute. In 1784 two committees, one appointed by the Academie des Sciences and the other by the Facult6 de Mede- cine, undertook an official study of mesmerism. These committees included some of the most distinguished scientists of the time, among them Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin. Mesmer himself refused to be investigated, but one of his followers, Charles D’Eslon, physician to Louis XVI’s brother, volunteered to discuss and illustrate his work.At the end of the investigation a public report was issued in which the commission unanimously agreed that the magnetic fluid was a hoax, and attributed Mesmer’s apparent cures to the fact that one person has the direct power to influence another through the vehicle of the imagination. They also submitted a secret report to Louis XVI in which they gravely warned that the grand crisis might become habitual and hereditary, and eventually assume epidemic proportions. In addition, they pointed out that women were especially susceptible to the grand crisis and that there was a risk of seduction while they were in this helpless state. Mesmerism was therefore labeled morally dangerous as well as medically unsound.After this report was issued, Mesmer entered upon a personal decline and soon went into retirement. A few reputable physicians, however, continued to experiment with mesmerism, but abandoned his astrological explanations and his extravagant claims of a “final cure.” The Marquis de Puysegur (1751— 1825), for example, discovered that the technique could be used to bring about a somnambulistic state instead of a grand crisis, and that in this condition even dull people showed clarity of thought and appeared to be clairvoyant. As a consequence, many physicians of the time presented their patients to mesmerized individuals for diagnosis, and mediums allowed themselves to be put in a somnambulistic state in order to predict future events. Along another line, a British physician, John Elliotson (1791-1868), suggested that mesmerism might be used as an anesthetic; and not long after, a surgeon named James Esdaile (1808- 59) reported that he had applied this technique in performing over two hundred major operations on convicts in India. These reports were generally met with either disbelief or outrage, since mesmerism continued to be associated with the occult until late in the nineteenth century

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "MESMER, FRANZ ANTON (1734- 1815)," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed August 16, 2022).


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