Mesmer was born in 1734, and grew up near Lake Constance, which divides Switzerland from Swabia (now southwestern Germany). Mesmer was well educated. He studied philosophy at the University of Dillingen in Bavaria, and theology at the University of Ingolstadt, also in Bavaria. He received a Jesuit education both in Church doctrine and 18th century science. At the age of 26, he enrolled in medical school in Vienna. As part of his studies, he wrote a dissertation titled The Influence of the Planets on the Human Body. This was the first indication that Mesmer had diverged from conventional topics in medicine. In his dissertation, Mesmer’s purpose was to explain in a scientific manner how gravity affects human physiology. Borrowing from English physician Richard Mead, Mesmer asserted that a “universal fluid” was the cause of not only gravitation, but also electricity, magnetism, light, and heat. As the oceans have tides, the universal fluid ebbs and flows across interstellar space, planets, and everything on planets, including people. It is responsible for “tides” in the bloodstream and nerves of humans. In 1766, at the age of 32, Mesmer’s dissertation was approved, and he received a combined MD and PhD from the Vienna School of Medicine.
Mesmer practiced medicine for 6 years in Vienna in the conventional mode. In 1768, he married Maria Anna von Bosch, an Austrian aristocrat with army connections. She was a widow 10 years older than Mesmer, with a teenage son. They lived in an elegant mansion belonging to Maria’s family, and participated in the social and musical life of Vienna.
One of the things I like about reading biographies is that you learn not only about the person, but also about the place and times in which he lives. Buranelli did a good job of describing the cultural milieu surrounding Mesmer. One of the fascinating tidbits in the book was the connection between the famous composer Wolfgang Mozart and Mesmer. Mesmer commissioned Mozart’s first opera, entitled La finta semplice. It was premiered at Mesmer’s Viennese mansion in 1768, with Mozart, only 12 years old, playing the clavier and conducting. Mozart (and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte) returned the favor 22 years later, by alluding to Mesmer in Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte:
Mesmer began his career of curing psychosomatic illness with the patient Franzl Oesterlin, a houseguest who may have been his wife’s cousin. She had hysterical symptoms including convulsions, vomiting spasms, toothaches and earaches, hallucinations, cataleptic trances, fainting, and attacks of paralysis lasting for days. Her symptoms would reach a convulsive climax, in which Franzl would become unconscious, followed by a break and return to normality.Here and there a touch Of the magnet, The stone of Mesmer, Who was born and bred In Germany, And became so famous In France.
As she was living in his house, Mesmer was able to study and examine Franzl in depth, and try out treatments on her. He began with conventional treatments, which in his time included bleeding, purging, and blistering. As Mesmer observed the fluctuations in her condition, he made a connection to his doctoral dissertation, and the concept of the “universal fluid” causing tides in the human bloodstream and nervous system. To control these tides, Mesmer turned to magnets. Treatment with magnets didn’t originate with Mesmer, but he used them in different ways than did his contemporaries. He had an astronomer friend at the university manufacture magnets in different shapes, which Mesmer put on different part of Franzl’s body. It appeared to Mesmer that the magnets had some effect on her symptoms. He conceptualized that magnets helped Mesmer control the balance of “animal magnetism” in her body.
Mesmer later experimented with other nonmagnetic materials and found that they had the same effect on Franzl. He changed his theory from magnets affecting animal magnetism in Franzl to Mesmer himself affecting animal magnetism in her. “[Mesmer] was an animal magnet capable of magnetizing things and people with animal magnetism” (p. 63).
Based on his clinical experience with Franzl, Mesmer began his first of many unsuccessful attempts to get official recognition for his ideas. He appealed to Stoerck, the head of the faculty of medicine at the university. No luck. He sent a letter describing his treatment of Franzl to various scientific institutions in Europe. He invited the famous Dutch physician Ingenhousz to observe his treatment of Franzl. Ingenhousz remained skeptical.
Franzl became cured, and ended up marrying Mesmer’s stepson. His success with Franzl gave Mesmer the reputation as a healer. He took more patients with psychiatric and psychosomatic symptoms, and worked more cures. His fame extended through Austria and the German states, although the official medical establishment remained opposed to him.
In 1777, Mesmer took on a new 18-year-old patient named Maria Theresa Paradies. She lost her sight at age 3, and became an accomplished pianist. Doctors recognized that her blindness was psychosomatic, but were unable to restore her sight. They had tried bleeding, purging, blistering, and electrotherapy, to no avail. Mesmer began his treatment by building up rapport with her, convincing her that he won’t use the painful methods other doctors had used. He touched and stroked her with his hands and wand. She acquired the ability to follow the movements of his wand as it pointed at the reflection of her face in the mirror. Her hysterical symptoms diminished.
Mesmer convinced Maria’s parents to let her move into his house, so he could more effectively treat her. Maria began to be able to differentiate colors, and focus on objects. She learned to coordinate her new visual ability with her sense of touch.
One downside to Maria’s partial regain of her sight was that it interfered with her piano ability. Being used to playing blind, it took a great deal of adjustment for her to play while sighted. Maria’s father turned against Mesmer, and demanded that she be returned to her parents. After being returned home, Maria lost her partial sight, and remained permanently blind thereafter. Mesmer’s “failure”, along with gossip concerning Mesmer’s motives, led to a scandal. There was no evidence that Mesmer had sexual relations with Maria, but gossip and innuendo, along with Maria’s parents’ hostility to Mesmer, did severe damage to Mesmer’s reputation. Mesmer decided in 1778 to leave Vienna and move to Paris. His wife didn’t accompany him.
Mesmer’s move to Paris was prompted in part by hope for a better reception from the scientific and medical establishments. Appeals to the French Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Medicine, and Paris Faculty of Medicine led to Mesmer’s demonstrating his technique to representatives from each society. Mesmer was unable to convince the skeptics, and didn’t get any endorsements. Objections raised against him included the possibility that some of the ailments Mesmer treated were feigned, and that some of the cures could be the result of the natural progress of the disease.
Mesmer acquired some disciples, the most prominent of whom was the French physician Charles Deslon. Deslon was the private physician to the Comte D’Artois, the king’s brother. He became converted after seeing how Mesmer was able to control epileptic convulsions. Deslon belonged to the Paris Society of Medicine, and tried to get his society to recognize Mesmerism as a legitimate treatment modality, but failed. Deslon published a book in 1780 entitled Observations on Animal Magnetism, an apologia that explains his conversion to Mesmerism. Mesmer and Deslon parted ways in 1782.
Like any good biography, The Wizard From Vienna draws a portrait of Mesmer from his own words in his books and letters, and from what was written and said about him by contemporaries. The book is well written, following a chronological structure, with chapters focusing on different periods of Mesmer’s life. Buranelli uses direct quotation judiciously to support his narrative. One example of an effective quotation is Mesmer’s letter to Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, which Buranelli reproduces in full. In this letter, Mesmer complained about the treatment that he and Deslon had received by the medical establishment, defended his record as a healer, and explained why he felt that he must leave Paris soon. After threatening to leave, the royal government offered Mesmer a generous pension, with the only condition that he would have to accept students named by the government. Mesmer rejected the offer, not wanting to have students forced on him, and wanting official recognition which the government wasn’t willing to give. The letter and his conduct rejecting the state pension showed Mesmer’s arrogance and what Buranelli described as a “persecution complex”.
Despite the lack of official recognition, Mesmer perfected his treatment technique in Paris and worked some remarkable cures. Mesmer generally didn’t treat organic or strictly physical ailments. He specialized in nervous and psychosomatic conditions, including epilepsy, psychosomatic paralysis, neuralgia, and asthma. A technique he used with individual patients was to sit opposite to the patient, place his hands on the patient’s shoulders, and run his hands down the arms to the fingertips, holding the thumbs momentarily before repeating the process. The purpose was to set up a flow of animal magnetism into the extremities. Mesmer welcomed the “crisis”, an intensification of the illness to an extreme, because a remission usually would follow. The hypnotic trance was an essential part of the treatment, rendering the patient susceptible to suggestion.
Mesmer later developed a technique for groups of patients, described in exquisite detail by Buranelli. Mesmer had a clinic at a large room in the opulent Hotel Bullion in Paris. He kept the doors closed, and windows draped and closed. An amateur musician, and one who realized the healing properties of music, Mesmer had someone play a piano or glass harmonica during the sessions. The “baquet” was a central part of Mesmer’s group therapy. It consisted of a large wooden tub with bottles of magnetic water in concentric circles around the axis, submerged in water containing magnetized bits of metal, stone, and glass. This magnetism wasn’t actual magnetism, but “animal magnetism”, a result of Mesmer’s touching or pointing at the item. Iron rods protruded from the tub, one for each patient to press against the afflicted part of the anatomy. The group of people around the baquet set up a “current” by holding hands.
There were 4 baquets in the large room, three for those with means to pay, and one for the poor. Mesmer presided over the sessions, directing assistants, moving from baquet to baquet. Injection of animal magnetism to the patient could come by touching, stroking, or pointing his wand. Patients who needed individual attention were brought to padded crisis rooms to be stroked or hypnotized.
Mesmer published his Memoir, his most important book, while in Paris. In this book he listed 27 propositions about animal magnetism. From a modern perspective, these propositions are vacuous, more philosophy than science. Here are some examples:
1) There is a mutual influence between heavenly bodies, the earth and living things.To be fair to Mesmer, not much was known about electricity and magnetism in the 18th century. Nothing at all was known about bioelectromagnetism or magnetoreception. Mesmer felt that some sort of energy transfer was occurring between him and the patient, and called it “animal magnetism”, but he was unable to explain what happened in scientific terms. It’s astonishing that over 200 years later, with all the scientific knowledge and technology we’ve acquired, we still can’t scientifically explain the energy transfer process between people (or even agree that it exists).
2) A universally distributed fluid . . . is the medium of the influence.
3) This mutual influence obeys mechanical laws that have not as yet been explained.
9) Certain properties analogous to those of the magnet reveal themselves, especially in the human body. It is possible to distinguish different and opposite poles that may be changed, linked, destroyed or reinforced. . . .
10) This property of the human body . . . made me, in view of the analogy with the magnet, call it animal magnetism.
23) We can see from the facts that this principle [animal magnetism], in accordance with the practical rules I shall set forth, can cure nervous ailments directly and other ailments indirectly (pp. 101-102).
Mesmer and former patients Nicholas Bergasse (lawyer) and Guillaume Kornmann (banker) set up a Mesmerian academy called “The Society of Harmony” in 1783. The society consisted of a charter subscription of 100 members who would be taught how to control and apply animal magnetism, and be awarded diplomas. Subscribers included Lafayette (French hero of the American Revolution), and various other aristocrats, professional people, and clerics. Mesmer insisted on secrecy and control of his intellectual property. “The society was a combination institute, medical school, and clinic” (p. 152). Students were able to see the practical application of the textbook knowledge by seeing how Mesmer treated patients.
The beginning of the end of Mesmer’s good fortunes came at the hands of his longtime enemy, the medical and scientific establishment. King Louis XVI, acting on a request from Deslon, established 2 royal commissions in 1784 to investigate Mesmerism. Benjamin Franklin, at the time the American minister to France, was named the head of one of the commissions. Members of Franklin’s commission included the astronomer Bailly, the famous chemist Lavoisier, and Guillotin, for whom the decapitating execution method was named.
Members of the commission attended Deslon’s clinic for several months. They didn’t doubt that cures had taken place. They questioned how the cures were accomplished. As one experiment, the commissioners challenged Deslon to magnetize them. He accepted the challenge, and nothing happened. “They considered the failure crucial, believing that if the cause were physical, they must feel it entering their bodies” (p. 162). In another experiment at Franklin’s house, some subjects failed to show any reaction when magnetized, and others who were not magnetized (but under the impression they were) had a reaction. For example, a commissioner impersonated Deslon to a blindfolded woman. She reacted by trembling and having pain spasm. The commissioners concluded that there was no proof of the animal magnetic fluid, and that any effects were due to touching and stroking, along with imagination, suggestion, and imitation. They also came to a bizarre and completely unwarranted conclusion that Mesmerism was harmful and injurious to the patient, both short-term and long-term. Mesmerism was as a result outlawed in French medical practice.
It must be remembered that conventional medical practices of Mesmer’s time included bloodletting, purging, and blistering. These practices, which we now know to be of no medical benefit, were not subjected to the rigorous scientific examination of the committees. For some reason, perhaps because of Mesmer’s successes, they directed their scientific and skeptical energies on Mesmerism. The technique they used is a valid one, assuming that animal magnetism is a universal fluid that everyone can equally generate and is equally sensitive to. I don’t agree with this universality assumption about animal magnetism (aka “qi / chi”, or natural energy). I think that some people, like Mesmer and Deslon, have a unique ability to be an energy healer and that most people don’t. Having a commissioner try to administer the treatment is not the same thing as Mesmer’s administering the treatment. Also, not everyone is equally susceptible to this energy. The typical Mesmerian patient was a female with a psychosomatic disorder, very much unlike a commissioner. Trying the treatment on a commissioner is not the same as trying the treatment on a patient.
The commissioners were right that some of the effects were likely due to the touching and stroking, along with imagination, suggestion, and imitation. The question is: were all of the effects due to these factors? Scientists then and today would say this was the case. That’s a result of ignorance of the physical process behind human to human energy transfer, assuming that this type of energy transfer exists. In Mesmer’s time, scientists didn’t have the knowledge or tools to investigate this; today we do. If we can identify the electromagnetic energy signal occurring when this type of healing occurs, we can then set up a controlled experiment, with the experimental condition occurring with the energy transfer, and the control condition occurring without the energy transfer, and all other interpersonal factors being identical (touching, use of hypnosis, suggestion, language, etc.) This would be a conclusive test of the physical and psychological effects of interpersonal energy transfer.
After the rebuke from the commissions, Mesmer received another blow, the splintering of his Society of Harmony in 1785. In a dispute over money and control of intellectual property, Bergasse, Kornmann, and others seceded from the main body and formed their own group. The feud was conducted in public, with the opposing arguments published in pamphlets. Mesmer, disillusioned, began a process of wandering through Europe. He went back to Vienna in 1793, after his wife had died, and was arrested and spent 2 months in jail for pro-revolutionary sentiments. He made his way back to Paris again, living there from 1798-1802. He published his last book at this time, in which he deals with the topic of ESP, including clairvoyance, mental telepathy, and precognition. In 1802, he returned to his hometown, the Lake Constance region, where he spent the last 13 years of his life. Mesmer was basically retired during this final stage of his life, although he continued to see patients. Mesmer died at the age of 80 in 1815.
Buranelli described two main lines of Mesmer’s lasting influence: occult and scientific Mesmerism. Occult Mesmerism (aka spiritual Mesmerism) began with the Chevalier de Barbarin founding his Animist Society of Harmony. Barbarin engaged in faith healing, holding prayer sessions in which he encouraged ill people to rely on divine intervention. Occult Mesmerism reached America in the form of Christian Science, via a line beginning with Charles Poyen, a Frenchman who crossed the Atlantic in 1838 and demonstrated animal magnetism around the U.S., who influenced Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who influenced his patient Mary Baker Eddy. Quimby cured Eddy of a chronic backache. After founding Christian Science, Eddy turned against Mesmerism because she felt it was materialistic.
Spiritual Mesmerism also influenced Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who founded Theosophy in 1875. Blavatsky believed that animal magnetism was the “carrier” of her visions, prophecies, and clairvoyant perceptions. In her book Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky says, “Mesmerism is the most important branch of magic; and its phenomena are the effects of the universal agent which underlies all magic and has produced in all ages so-called miracles” (p. 207).
Buranelli describes scientific Mesmerism as “the true tradition of Mesmer, the line of straight descent from his discoveries in abnormal psychology and therapeutic psychiatry” (p. 207). One figure in this line of thought was J. P. F. Deleuze, who published Critical History of Animal Magnetism in 1813. Deleuze described posthypnotic suggestion. The Abbe Faria published On the Cause of Lucid Sleep in 1819. Faria “replaced the phrase ‘animal magnetism’ with the word ‘concentration’” (p. 209). He held that a person could be mesmerized, and achieve “lucid sleep”, when his attention is concentrated on the single idea of going to sleep at the command of the mesmerizer.
In the mid-nineteenth century, James Braid coined the term “hypnotism” as a replacement for “mesmerism”. His new term was derived from the Greek word for “sleep”. The word “hypnotize” became standard for a scientific method of inducing artificial somnambulism or lucid sleep. “Mesmerize” survived but with a narrower meaning: “trancelike semiparalysis caused by astonishment or fear” (p. 211). Braid held that the fundamental cause of hypnotism is suggestion, which is subjective and psychological rather than objective or physical. In other words, Braid separated hypnotism from animal magnetism. Braid agreed with Faria that concentration is necessary to achieve a hypnotic state.
In France, Braid’s ideas were picked up by Abroise Auguste Liebault. Liebault made “suggestion” the key to hypnotism. “The subject’s mind is unable to operate by itself but remains dominated by the last suggestion from the hypnotist. This explains such things as catalepsy and paralysis” (p. 213). Liebault’s pupil Hippolyte Bernheim founded the Nancy school of hypnosis. In his book Suggestive Therapeutics: A Treatise on the Nature and Uses of Hypnotism (1888), Bernheim argued that hypnosis was a normal, not pathological psychological condition. This was in opposition to Charcot, who argued that hypnosis was abnormal, a type of hysteria. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was a student of both Charcot and Bernheim. He started using hypnosis in his practice, but switched to free association as a better way to probe the unconscious. Freud’s domination of clinical psychology and psychiatry in the early and mid 20th century led to a reduction of interest in the clinical use of hypnosis. The decline of psychoanalysis in the late 20th century has allowed hypnosis to make a partial comeback.
Buranelli, whose biography of Mesmer was published in 1975, declares flatly that “[a]nimal magnetism is a myth . . . [a]nimal magnets are therefore a myth . . . [and n]othing physical passes from hypnotist to subject” (p. 216). It’s unlikely that this view would have changed in the last 40 years, with little progress in understanding human magnetoreception or electromagnetic healing. My opinion is that there has to be something more than hypnotism in Mesmer’s cures. Mesmer was one of the great healers of his time, possibly of all time. If we are to believe the reports, he cured a wide variety of psychosomatic and psychological ailments, including epilepsy, asthma, blindness, and paralysis. Hypnosis is a useful tool in therapy, but hypnotizing a patient is not the same thing as curing him. There are plenty of people today with the ability to hypnotize people; these hypnotists may be able to suggest to the patient that he is free of symptoms, which may work temporarily, but that doesn’t mean that the patient will be permanently cured. Mesmer would have argued that hypnosis was a tool to allow the flow of animal magnetism between him and the patient. Replacing “animal magnetism” with “electromagnetic energy” allows a modern interpretation of the Mesmerian cure that goes beyond simple hypnosis. I have noticed that I am much more sensitive to electromagnetic fields when sleeping than awake. Although I haven’t tested this sensitivity while in a hypnotic trance, it’s possible that the semi-awake trance state makes people more sensitive to electromagnetic fields, including the fields emitted by healers such as Mesmer. This electromagnetic healing energy can, in theory, be measured. Since the 1970’s, SQUID magnetometers have been available to researchers and clinicians. These devices are capable of measuring very small biomagnetic fields. Most of the biological research applications for these devices have been conventional studies such as activity of the brain (e.g. magnetoencephalography), stomach, and heart. With SQUID magnetometers and other newer technology, we can measure the fields that contemporary healers generate and identify the electromagnetic healing process. We need a concerted effort by scientists to complete what Mesmer started and bring the concept of energy healing squarely into conventional medical science.