Franz Mesmer is one of very few people whose name has become a verb in everyday use – mesmerize. Mesmer was friends with some of the most memorable characters in history, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Marie Antoinette.
A qualified medical doctor, Mesmer believed he had discovered a remarkable new phenomenon, which he called animal magnetism. He used animal magnetism to cure diseases. His treatments were fashionable among the wealthiest citizens of Vienna and Paris, earning Mesmer a fortune.
In reality there is no such thing as animal magnetism. Mesmer was a pseudoscientist.
Sadly, what Mesmer did not know is that when his treatment worked, it worked because of the power of suggestion. This power was later recognized as the genuine phenomenon of hypnosis (or mesmerism). It allowed Mesmer to successfully treat people with psychosomatic illnesses – i.e. illnesses rooted in the mind.
Franz Anton Mesmer was born on May 23, 1734 in the small village of Iznang in southern Germany. He was the third of nine children.
His father, Anton Mesmer, was a forest warden employed by the Archbishop of Konstanz. His mother, Maria Ursula Michel, was a locksmith’s daughter.
According to some accounts, Franz spent an idyllic childhood playing in the woodland and streams close to the shores of Lake Constance, where he enjoyed tracking streams back to their origins.
At the age of eight he began his education at the Green Mountain Monastery where he learned, among other things, Latin – an important language for anyone destined for a university education.
In fact, it was intended that Franz would become a Catholic priest. With this in mind, age 12, he was sent to the Jesuit College in the university city of Konstanz. At age 16 he moved to the Jesuit Theological School of Dillingen where he studied Logic, Metaphysics, and Theology.
In 1754, age 20, he began studying at the Jesuit College of the University of Ingolstadt where he took classes in Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, Theology, French, and Latin. At the end of his studies he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
In 1759, age 25, he enrolled to study Law at the University of Vienna in Austria. After a year he decided to drop Law and study Medicine instead. Vienna was then the capital of a large European empire: a political, cultural and scientific nerve center.
In November 1765, age 31, Mesmer passed his final medical exams with honors.
Mesmer submitted his doctoral thesis in 1766, age 32. Some hints of his future scientific thinking were already present.
Mesmer considered the health effects caused by movements of the heavenly bodies. In 1687 Isaac Newton had shown in his scientific blockbuster Principia how ocean tides are caused by the gravitational effects of the sun and moon. In 1713 Newton added The General Scholium to Principia, including these words:
Newton’s Spirit may have been referring to the little-understood phenomenon of electricity.
When Mesmer completed his doctorate it was normal to speak of electricity as a fluid. Mesmer interpreted Newton’s Spirit as a fluid with special properties. Mesmer was also influenced by the works of the fourteenth century physician/alchemist Paracelsus, who believed that magnets and the heavenly bodies produce a fluid that interacts with the human body.
Making a Splash in Hip and Happening Vienna
With his medical degree secured, Mesmer began courting Maria Anna von Posch, recently widowed, ten years older than him, and extremely wealthy. The couple married on January 10, 1768, and moved into a mansion in Vienna, bought for the couple by Maria’s father. Mesmer equipped the house with a medical practice room and laboratories.
These were exciting times in Vienna – it was the center of the musical world – and in the year of his marriage Mesmer commissioned new kid on the block Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, only 12 years old, to write the operetta Bastien und Bastienne. The work was performed in Mesmer’s private theater in his garden.
Mozart’s father, Leopald Mozart, wrote:
Mesmer moved in the top echelons of Viennese society, and was a prominent figure in its fashionable music scene. He was an accomplished cellist and pianist, and, in addition to Mozart, he made friends with the composers Christoph Gluck and Joseph Haydn.
Privately he regarded his wealthy wife as rather dim-witted, but the marriage looked conventionally happy to their acquaintances.
In addition to advancing his social standing, Mesmer was determined to advance his medical career.
Magnets and Animal Magnetism
In 1774, age 40, Mesmer latched on to news coming from the Jesuit astronomer & astrologer Maximilian Hell, who was apparently curing illnesses using ‘magnet therapy.’
Harking back to his doctoral thesis, Mesmer believed he understood how Hell’s magnet therapy worked. If a magnetic fluid truly existed, and it must exist if magnet therapy worked, then Hell’s magnets were most likely curing people by causing an artificial tide in this fluid.
Mesmer conducted a trial with magnets. A woman with an ailment described as hysteria swallowed an iron preparation, then Mesmer fixed magnets around her body. The patient told Mesmer she could feel amazing streams of a mysterious fluid flowing inside her body cleansing it of illness. Mesmer believed this confirmed his theory.
He soon found he could generate equally good results by abandoning the iron and the magnets altogether and simply passing his hands over patients.
In 1775 he began to talk about the success of his animal magnetism. He considered that his own body enjoyed a significant abundance of magnetic fluid, which he could pass on to his patients. From Mesmer’s point of view his patients were sick because their bodies:
- lacked magnetic fluid, or
- had blockages in their magnetic fluid circulation – blockages that Mesmer’s treatment could remove.
How did Mesmer’s Treatment Work?
Mesmer’s animal magnetism and magnetic fluid were wholly fictitious.
His treatment worked by the power of suggestion – hypnosis, formally discovered by James Braid in 1843.
Mesmer was successful because he was a particularly impressive and authoritative figure, with a commanding personality. People became suggestible in his presence.
As an honest physician, Mesmer only ever claimed his treatments were useful for people affected by ‘nervous complaints’ – illnesses whose origins were psychosomatic – i.e. coming from the mind.
Despite criticism from Vienna’s medical school, Mesmer established an enormously successful practice based on animal magnetism.
From a scientific perspective, Mesmer’s ultimate tragedy is that, although his treatments were often successful, he was dismissed as a quack by the medical profession. The simple reason for this is that he offered a quack’s justification for his successes; nobody at the time looked deeper into the scientific basis.
Furthermore, Mesmer was too personally bound up in the concept of a special fluid that filled the universe. If he had researched a different theme for his doctoral thesis he might have discovered for himself the phenomena of hypnosis and suggestion. He would then have been remembered as a great scientist rather than a pseudoscientist.
Animal Magnetism in Your Bed!Mesmer began to believe that he could transfer some of his personal surplus of magnetic fluid into inanimate objects by touching them.
He would magnetize patients’ clothes and beds so they could receive the healing fluid every hour of the day.
He magnetized trees in his garden and chairs in his practice rooms to benefit his patients.
He invented the baquet, a large wooden tub equipped with a layer of iron filings he had saturated with a large dose of his animal magnetism fluid. Upon the iron filings he placed bottles of water magnetized by touch. Each bottle held an iron rod, which emerged from the tub for patients to hold, allowing magnetic fluid to enter their bodies.
Eventually, Mesmer built baquets large enough to treat 20 or 30 patients simultaneously.
By 1777, Mesmer’s failures were growing in number. In particular the well-publicized case of blind girl was causing him problems. The girl’s blindness may have been psychosomatic, and after treatment she claimed she could see again, but only in Mesmer’s presence. And then she went blind again.
The medical establishment started breathing very heavily down Mesmer’s neck.
He responded by abandoning both Vienna and his wife.
He decided that life in the French capital of Paris might be preferable.
Good Morning Paris
In January 1778, age 43, Mesmer turned up in Paris, were he resurrected his career, establishing a medical practice in an exclusive Paris neighborhood.
There he quickly gathered a large and devoted following of people – the sort of people who would believe pigs can fly, if such a belief were fashionable. His wealthy new clients paid Mesmer very high fees for treatments.
The city’s medical establishment soon turned against him.
In 1779 Mesmer published a short book in French entitled Report on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism in which he described the 27 principles of animal magnetism.
In essence he proposed that an invisible magnetic fluid filled the universe. Mesmer’s fluid linked everything – humans, the earth, and the heavenly bodies. If the fluid became unevenly distributed, there would be ill health. Correcting imbalances in the fluid led to recovery from illness, and this was achieved by Mesmer’s methods.
The French King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were impressed by Mesmer’s pseudoscience and gave him money to support his work.
Mesmer did not dress like a typical physician when treating his patients: he looked more like a wizard, wearing a long silk gown, sometimes waving a magnetized wand over their heads. Patients reported they were captivated by Mesmer’s piercing stare.
His practice continued to swell. By 1780 it had grown so large that he would treat at least 200 patients a day in groups. Outbreaks of mass-hysteria were frequent during these treatments.
People who became particularly hysterical or had convulsions in his presence – usually women – would be removed to crisis rooms.
The newspapers talked of Mesmeromania sweeping through the city.
Mesmer grew enormously wealthy, but once more an ill wind was beginning to blow in his direction.
Paris Turns Sour
People began to speculate about what happened to the women who were taken to Mesmer’s crisis rooms. Mesmer would see them alone, often for a long time.
Was he taking advantage of his female patients? After all, he seemed to be capable of casting a powerful magic spell on them. Rumors began to circulate that Mesmer was sexually exploiting women in his care.
Even the King was not immune to a sense of unease. Queen Marie Antoinette had joined Mesmer’s social circle. The King feared Mesmer might wield a sinister influence over the Queen.
And so, at the peak of Mesmer’s career, in March 1784, a Royal Commission began an investigation of his methods. The commission included two of the most eminent scientists of the time and indeed in the history of science – Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin.
After studying the evidence the commission said there was no evidence to support Mesmer’s claim to have discovered a new ‘magnetic fluid.’ Any benefits to patients from his treatments were simply ‘imagination.’
Just as Mesmer had failed as a scientist by misinterpreting hypnosis as a magnetic fluid, the eminent scientists of the commission failed to recognize there was a real phenomenon at work in Mesmer’s patients.
Plenty of evidence was placed before the commission indicating there was a real effect. However, having correctly dismissed the magnetic fluid, they left it at that.
Vienna had grown too hot for Mesmer seven years earlier. Now Paris was also uncomfortably warm. His response, once again, was to move on.
In 1785 Mesmer simply disappeared, leaving no forwarding address.
Parisians seeking treatment by mesmerism were still able to get it. By the time Mesmer left the city, thousands of copycat mesmerists had set up shop, taking full financial advantage of Mesmeromania.
Mesmer the Nomad
After leaving Paris, Mesmer didn’t hang around long in any one place. He spent time in various locations in France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, and Switzerland.
He returned to Vienna in 1793 only to suffer the indignity of being deported from the city. The reason given was that his political views were suspicious.
Some Personal Details and the End
Mesmer finally settled in the Swiss town of Frauenfeld, close to Lake Constance, the lake whose shores he had grown up beside.
Although seen as disreputable by the medical profession, he was a very wealthy man: he could afford the elite lifestyle of an aristocrat.
He spent his final years in the German town of Meersburg, still close to Lake Constance.
Franz Mesmer died, age 80, of a stroke on March 5, 1815 in Meersburg. He was buried in the town’s graveyard, overlooking Lake Constance.
He died three decades before science formally explained his hypnotic successes in Vienna and Paris.
Author of this page: The Doc
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