V0011094 A practictioner of Mesmerism using Animal Magnetism

March 5th marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Franz Anton Mesmer, the man who brought the world psychoanalysis, despite his very best efforts. Oh, and the glass harmonica.

Mesmer was born in Austria in 1734 and tried philosophy, theology and law before settling into medicine. In his medical practice Mesmer adopted the approach of the unfortunately-named Jesuit philosopher Maximillien Hell by applying magnets to his patients’ bodies wherever they felt pain. Mesmer developed this practice into his theory of ‘animal magnetism’: that the human body is made up of a universal fluid, and that illness is caused when the fluid builds up in the wrong parts of the body. Through ‘animal magnetism’ the fluid could be drawn away from the ailing parts of the body and the patient would be cured, often through dramatic ‘crises’ or trances. Initially, Mesmer did this through use of magnets, then ‘wands’ (sticks of metal) or ‘baquets’ (metal poles sticking out of a bath full of water, glass and metal). But increasingly Mesmer felt that he could control the universal fluid using only his own hands, which he waved over entranced patients, or by rubbing their thighs. (The latter technique  raised a few Parisian eyebrows during his later investigations: his critics claimed he was particularly fond of using it on young female patients).[1]

After an embarrassing stint in Vienna, where Mesmer failed to cure a famous blind pianist, he set up practice in Paris on the Place Vendôme. Those seeking a cure by animal magnetism would be led into a richly carpeted, muffled room and would be greeted by the sight of entranced bodies lying in extremis over the baquet, quivering to the sounds of Mesmer’s much loved glass harmonica (Mesmer owned one of the first glass harmonicas which he brought with him from Vienna, and greatly encouraged its popularity among Parisian circles). The master himself presided over everything dressed in a magnificent lilac robe, taking the more difficult cases away into a private room for one-on-one treatment. He began to specialise in cases of nervous disorders, believing the universal fluid to have a particular influence over the nerves, which would rebalance during crises.

In 1780s Paris, a city where anti-establishment radicals were seeking intellectual outlets against the elitist world of the Enlightenment, Mesmer quickly gathered followers.[2] One of his most devoted supporters was the Chevalier d’Eslon, doctor to the Comte d’Artois, who quickly set up his own animal magnetism practice.

Mesmer’s popularity, and the dubious nature of his practice garnered resistance among the Parisian intelligentsia. In 1784 an investigation into animal magnetism was proposed by the Académie des Sciènces. Mesmer was torn. On the one hand, he craved the prestige that would come with establishment acknowledgement of his discovery. On the other, he guarded the secrets of animal magnetism and his role as master of the science with a passionate jealousy. He suggested an investigation on his terms, but the Académie des Sciènces committee refused. Instead the committee offered the investigation to d’Eslon, who accepted.

The committee was spearheaded by Benjamin Franklin, father of electricity and animal magnetism sceptic (and inventor of the glass harmonica), with the support of Antoine Lavoisier, the famous chemist who would lose his head to the guillotine less than ten years later. The results were not favourable. In one episode, a peasant woman was blindfolded and sent into a mesmeric crisis believing that she was being magnetised by d’Eslon, despite the fact that d’Eslon was in the room next door, doing his best to cure Benjamin Franklin of kidney stones.

The report, when it was published, was damning in the extreme. It did nothing to shake the faith of d’Eslon, however, who died at the baquet in a mesmeric crisis two years later (mesmerism had become so taboo following the report that he was buried in unconsecrated ground). But for much of Paris it was conclusive. The commissioners had found no proof of any kind that universal fluid existed, or that the presence of a doctor-conductor had any effect on the patient. Instead, they claimed, it appeared the effects of mesmerism were coming from the power of the patient’s own imagination.

This commission marked one of the earliest suggestions that the mind could have a powerful impact upon the body. One of Mesmer’s more fortunate disciples, the Marquis de Puységur, developed this into a theory that those within a trance state, somnambulists as he termed them, had special powers of perception over their body. Hypnotherapy had been born. In the nineteenth century these practices would be developed in Paris and Nancy by Jean-Martin Charcot and Hippolyte Berheim, before being brought back to Austria by Sigmund Freud.

Following the commission’s publication, Mesmer’s practice dwindled. He lost what money he had left in the Revolution and returned to his homeland, where the final decades of his life remain a mystery.

One of Franz Anton Mesmer’s more sympathetic biographers wrote that ‘throughout his life it was Mesmer’s tragedy to overlook the essential cause of his success.’[3] Mesmer was so committed to the concept of the universal fluid that he was blinded to the much more remarkable revelation of the Mesmeric crisis: the power of the imagination over the body.   Mesmer would have been outraged (and probably not a bit mystified) to see how his precious animal magnetism had been transformed into psychoanalysis by the twentieth century.

History is so often traced in straight lines between great men and their great achievements. Franz Anton Mesmer is a marvellous example of a man whose actions changed the world in ways he would never know and probably would never have understood. Oh, and the glass harmonica.


[1]                      There are several good biographies of Mesmer and hypnosis. See A. Gault, A History of Hypnotism, (Cambridge, 1992), P. Fara, Sympathetic Attractions: Magnetic Practices, Beliefs and Symbolism in Eighteenth Century England, (Princeton, 1996), M. Goldsmith, Franz Anton Mesmer: The History of an Idea, (London, 1934), V. Buranelli, The Wizard from Vienna, (London, 1976), D. Forrest, Hypnotism: A History, (London, 1999). There is also a 1994 biopic starring Alan Rickman.

[2]                      See R. Darnton Mesmerism and the end of the Enlightenment in France, (Harvard, 1968)

[3]                      M. Goldsmith, Franz Anton Mesmer: The history of an idea, (London, 1934) p. 53.


Anna Jenkin is a third year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the criminal history of eighteenth-century London and Paris. She is president of the Franco British Network for Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Research and project leader for Beyond the Bailey: using historical archives for creative writing. Follow her on twitter @acjenkin .

Image source: wellcome images

Tags : animal magnetismBenjamin Franklinglass harmonicahistory of medicinehypnosisMesmerParispsychoanalysis
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