Animal Magnetism: Birth of a new phenomenon
Mesmer was a bright German physician who studied medicine at the prestigious University of Vienna. In 1773 he successfully treated a young lady who had suffered from a convulsive ailment by applying magnets to her body. He hypothesized that a diseased person’s body had a ‘universal subtle magnetic fluid’ that was obstructed, through which magnets could restore natural circulation resulting in symptom alleviation. Mesmer achieved similar results by using magnetized objects such as paper, metals, bread, silk, lather stone, glass water, wood, and dogs until he realized that he could produce similar healings by just passing his hands over a patient’s body. Mesmer attributed this special “magnetized fluid” to reside within himself, calling it “animal magnetism”. Mesmer disseminated his animal magnetism theory by visiting neighbouring countries, enjoying moderate success but only secured his fame after moving from Vienna to Paris, where his reputation as a guru awaited him.
The success of Mesmer’s bold therapeutic technique quickly spread, such that he no longer had time to offer individual therapy. Mesmer began to see groups of clients (twenty or more at a time) by having them sit in a bacquet which is circular, room-size wooden tub with iron rods protruding from the walls of the tub. Patients sat around the bacquets, grasping the rods and linking each others fingers to promote the flow of magnetized fluid. Mesmer eventually abandoned the bacquet for just passes of his hands to equilibrate the distribution of magnetic fluid.
The patients who were mesmerized exhibited startling convulsive fits, called “crises”, laughter, cries, while others fell somnolent, resembling sleep. The public flocked to Mesmer for help, but not without attracting interest from distinguished persons such as Charles d’Eslon (1739 – 1786), a physician to the King’s brother (Comte d’Artois), and who also became Mesmer’s first pupil. D’Eslon went on to give instruction to over 160 doctors before falling out with Mesmer, as did many more of his students who held differing views on the novel phenomena. In 1783, Mesmer developed a semi-secret society, the “Society of Harmony” whose membership comprised of nobility, doctors, lawyers, clergy and merchants who swore to secrecy Mesmer’s teachings and to treat patients using animal magnetism gratuitously.
Animal magnetism spread to other countries such as Switzerland, Russia and most notably Germany around 1780, with the first periodical on magnetism published in 1787. By 1790, scientists and medical men became interested in magnetism, as noted by an Englishman who travelled there in 1803, remarking, “many very enlightened men in the universities talk of animal magnetism, nearly with the same certainty as of mineral magnetism”.
Sensational seeking in Paris and the scientific drive in Germany
Paris in 1778 was then the capital of the Enlightenment age, a period that valued reason, naturalism, and criticized traditional customs and morals. Paris was already host to a number of controversial movements and individuals (e.g., Alexandro Cagliostro who Mesmer was acquainted with, purported a convoluted theory of occult numerology). Prior to Mesmer’s arrival, Parisians had already heard about his success, thus when Mesmer arrived, the French aristocrats were eager to learn about this mysterious phenomena. Many eminent members belonging to those societies lent their prestige to mesmerism, including Mozart, Lafayette, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the Puységur brothers, who will be discussed in their important role in advancing magnetism.
Mesmer’s claim to fame is owed in part to the zeitgeist in Paris at the time, a climate that was receptive to new discoveries. However, the idea of magnets’ influence on vital forces was not new. More than two and a half centuries before Mesmer, Paracelsus laid the foundation on which Mesmer could have built his theory—had he known it existed. Sources believe Mesmer did not know about Paracelcus’ work. In any event, Paracelcus (1493-1541) postulated the existence of two magnetic forces: a universal force that connected everything and a “vital spirit” in animate beings that could be willed to act on its own physical bodies and of others. Paracelsus theory however would have to wait until Newton’s universal gravitational theory was discovered before intellectuals accepted that unobservable forces could act on objects. This time was fated to Mesmer, who was very much attracted to the magnetic fluid idea. His dissertation was based on the celestial influence of planets on the human body which he built from Newton’s principles of interplanetary forces. Hence, Newton created the intellectual landscape for the acceptance of Mesmer’s ideas without appearing anachronistic. To the extent that people did not think the bacquet was a bizarre contraption was due to recent physical discoveries. The bacquet’s analog was the Leiden jar in which physicists were capable of storing accumulated electricity.
Similar to the sensationalism in Paris, Germany provided an intellectual environment that was congenial to animal magnetism. It was the Romantic period and Germany was at the forefront of intellectual pursuits, open to new ideas, and generous with funding. Darton reports the views on science in the 1780’s
The reading public of that era was intoxicated by the power of science, and it was bewildered by the real and imaginary forces with which scientists peopled the universe. Because the public could not distinguish from the real and imaginary, it seized on any invisible fluid, any scientific-sounding hypothesis that promised to explain the wonders of nature. (Gauld, 1992, p. 4)
Mesmerism was new, mysterious and found a receptive audience amongst scholars dominated by ‘natuphilosphie’, which saw the universe as a living organism endowed with a soul connecting all its parts. Mesmer’s universal fluid theory provided an alternative explanation for mysteries, as Richter of Dessau explains
it consists in nothing less than the solution of many enigmas of human existence and particular the enigmas of Christianity on the obscure and mystic parts of which a light is thrown which permits us to gaze clearly on the secrets of the mystery (Gauld, 1992, p.90).
The Decline of Animal Magnetism
The rapid spread of animal magnetism evoked a public enquiry that was commissioned by King Louis XVI consisting of nine eminent dignitaries, scientists and physicians from the Academie Royale des Sciences and Faculty de Médecine. Benjamin Franklin spearheaded the report along with other famous contemporaries including Antoine Lavoisier (a distinguished chemist), M. De Guillotin (the discoverer of the be-heading device that bears his name and eventually took his head). To the chagrin of Mesmer and the proponents of animal magnetism, the report was unfavorable; its deathblow verdict to magnetism was not in the denial of therapeutic effect, rather due to imagination. The verdict read
…nothing can be more astonishing than the sight of these convulsions…but how were these effects produced? It remains to be considered whether the crises or the convulsions…can be useful in curing or improving the sick. Without doubt the imagination of patients often has a considerable influence on the cure of the ailments. The effect… has not been established by positive experiments; but it does not seem that no one could doubt it (Gauld, 1992, p. 31).
Within weeks, the Parisians rebuked animal magnetism, laughed and ridiculed Mesmer on the streets and in Parisian theatres. Mesmer’s own disciples from the Society disagreed with how the Society should be run and subsequently disbanded in 1785. A new society formed, consisting of three Puységur brothers, of whom the eldest, The Marquis Chastenet de Puységur actively practiced and promoted magnetism, especially among the peasant class. One such peasant, Victor Race sought treatment from Puységur for fever and inflammation of the lungs. Puységur was surprised that Race did not exhibit the violent crises when magnetized. Instead, Race fell into a somnolent trance, albeit conscious state which Puységur named, the “Perfect Crisis” later to be known as “artificial somnambulism” and deemed it superior to Mesmer’s crises. Puységur was the first magnetizer to document his successes. Mesmer felt enraged and betrayed by the Puységurs—he never forgave them, although Mesmer published his last work and tried to incorporate artificial somnambulism into his own doctrine.
The humiliation and contempt ultimately forced Mesmer to leave Paris. He traveled abroad for half a year to London, Italy, and Germany, before returning to live in Paris until 1793, when he was forced to flee the cataclysmic French Revolution (1789-1799). Mesmer settled in Switzerland and for the next 40 years, continued to practice, preach and defend his magnetic fluid theory. Although he separated himself from other mesmerists, to the point where rumours circulated that he perished in the revolution, writers, philosophers, theologians felt “there is hardly one German poet who remain untouched by the influence of animal magnetism” (Ellenberger, 1965). Mesmer was encouraged by those who survived the revolution to come back to Paris to disseminate his teachings, but he refused to teach, preferring instead to heal the poor in his town. At the age of 81, he died peacefully on a quiet waterfront property.
The Rise and Fall of Hypnosis
The evolution of hypnosis as we know it today was not a linear array of progressive discoveries. Rather, since its formal induction in 1777, its evolution had a periodicity that garnered respect and acclaim in one moment and in the next, casted dubiety and quackery to its name. Had hypnosis not been demonstrably useful in some context, it would have been buried in the annals of time with other fads like phrenology. When respectable medical men shunned its uses, hypnosis managed to be kept alive by the charlatans and fringe practitioners until it was fashionable to once again be studied by the medical, dental, psychological and psychiatric professionals. Hypnosis originated from the concept of “Animal Magnetism”, or “Mesmerism”, an eponymous tradition of naming a phenomenon after its discoverer, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815).
The nascency of hypnosis first emerged with frenzied interest in Paris, with its most ardent supporters bringing the movement to different parts of Europe, then to Britain and finally to America. Hypnosis had a fiery start that garnered great interest from the public to medics, the eminent class and those in the military and public office. Sadly, what could have been a great therapeutic tool, which its originator, Mesmer wished it to be, suffered a fate that swung it status from a psychiatric panacea in one generation into shameful practice relegated to traveling charlatans and those practicing the occult. This occurs in almost a predictable manner—one generation produces a figure parallel in stature to Mesmer, who manages to add a piece of knowledge and revive interest in hypnosis long enough to have a scandal of some kind cast the benefits into oblivion until the next revival.
After Mesmer, many more important figures discovered the therapeutic effects of hypnosis. Future blogs will discuss the Puységur brothers, Dr. Elliotson, Dr. Charcot, Dr. Braid and even Charles Dickens.