Who Was Franz Anton Mesmer?

The name Mesmer might just mean something to you if you’ve been learning about hypnosis. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll probably have used his name at some point without realizing it; we describe people as “mesmerized” when they are totally absorbed in one thing, captivated by it and oblivious to everything else.  So who was Mesmer and what did he have to do with hypnosis?

Until I started looking into hypnosis seriously, I always thought of Mesmer as a rather flamboyant Victorian figure – but in fact he was around much, much earlier, and because of this, I suppose he could be forgiven for some of his idiosyncrasies – you’ll see what I’m talking about shortly!

Let’s just say he did his bit to give hypnotism the reputation of having occult overtones and “charlatan” image that we still have to battle against today! So let’s take a quick look at this rather strange but fascinating character, who was perhaps his own worst enemy… Mesmer was born in 1734 in Germany.

He was a good scholar, studying theology and law before taking up medicine at the University of Vienna. Mesmer found himself fascinated by the work and thoughts of Sir Isaac Newton, and he wrote a thesis, inspired by Newton’s theories, suggesting the gravitational pull of the moon and the planets might affect the human body.

He came to believe there was a kind of invisible fluid that ran through space and matter, and that this fluid, or “ether” could be pulled by the gravitational force of the different astronomical bodies. This idea was disparaged by many in later years, yet it’s uncannily close to recent scientific theories about dark matter and string theory, so maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all! At the time, his theories were seen as quite plausible, and worthy of discussion in higher scientific circles.

At the age of 34 he found himself a wealthy widow for a wife. She was 10 years his senior and they set themselves up in grand style, living on a huge estate and enjoying many cultural pursuits. He seemed set for life.

The Start of Animal Magnetism

When he witnessed a Jesuit professor placing a powerful magnet on a woman suffering severe stomach cramps, and saw the cramps quickly fade, he was even more convinced that a gravitational or magnetic pull had a profound effect on human health. He began to use magnets in his own medical practice, convinced they were pushing and pulling the “ether” around the body.

Being a bit of a megalomaniac, he would go through theatrical rituals, passing the magnets over and around the patients in melodramatic procedures… Who knows whether he thought these over the top  measures were necessary, or whether he realized they made the patients more ready to believe that he was somehow, rather magically “curing” them. Either way, he soon made quite a name for himself.

On one occasion when he bled a patient with leeches (don’t forget, we’re talking about almost 250 years ago – it was normal to bleed almost every patient in this way, for virtually any complaint!) – he noticed that the blood flow increased when he moved close to the patient and slowed when he move away. This convinced Mesmer that he himself was affecting the “tides” in the patient’s body. He believed he was acting as a magnet, and coined the phrase “Animal Magnetism”.

He believed everyone had this Animal Magnetism, and that ailments were caused by a patient’s animal magnetism becoming depleted. He dispensed with the use of actual magnets, believing it was the physician who could bring about healing by transmitting their own, abundant animal magnetism to the patient.

How Fame Can Go To Our Heads

He was clearly a charismatic character, and produced a large number of remarkable “cures”. He did have rather a love of the dramatic, and became quite a celebrity, taking his “show” on the road, touring the royal courts of Europe and giving dramatic demonstrations of his “powers”.

He loved to dress in deep purple robes, and wave his hands around theatrically, staring deeply into the patient’s eyes and speaking in deep, sonorous tones. His showmanship and celebrity made him less than popular in medical circles, so Vienna’s medical elite were more than happy to jump at the chance of discrediting him when one particular case went wrong.

Ironically, it was initially a rather successful case. A young, blind concert pianist came to him for treatment, hoping to be cured of her psychosomatic blindness. And indeed, she regained her vision under Mesmer’s treatment. However her parents were outraged on two counts. One, their daughter’s piano playing seemed to deteriorate when she was able to see. And secondly, they received a kind of allowance, a royal pension, which would cease if the girl regained her sight.

So they forcibly removed her from Mesmer’s house and insisted that the treatment was stopped. They also allowed rumors to circulate that he may have had an “inappropriate relationship” with the girl, which seems unlikely. Her blindness returned, her piano playing improved, and their quality of life was safe!

The End Of Franz Anton Mesmer…Sort Of

Mesmer took himself off to Paris, somewhat in disgrace, but continued to practice, and continued to court controversy. The scientific and medical establishment may have been right to accuse him of being unable to prove his theories, but they completely missed what was happening. After all, there’s little doubt that he was genuinely successful in a great many cases.

What they failed to recognize, partly due to Mesmer’s egotistical and over elaborate rituals,  was that he was using psychological techniques, trance induction and hypnotic suggestion, which would later be developed by doctors like James Braid and James Esdaile into what we now understand as hypnosis. So, we hypnotists today have a lot to both thank and curse Mesmer for. But there’s no getting away from the fact that he makes an interesting interlude in the history of hypnotism!