Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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The magic touch

Franz Mesmer captivated patients with both his charisma and crazy magnetic cures

Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, made some interesting contributions to both the field of medicine and quackery. He developed theories that held sway for far longer than they should have, greatly influencing Western medical practice throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether he was a celebrity charlatan or a skilled physician, nobody would argue that he possessed an amazing power over his patients and their health.

The future mesmerizer was born into a working-class family on May 23, 1734, in Iznang, a tiny village in the old German province of Swabia. After studying at two Jesuit schools, Mesmer moved to Vienna in 1759 to attend medical school at the university. Recent evidence suggests he plagiarized his 1766 doctoral dissertation — which discussed the planets' effects on the human body — and his talents as an opportunist revealed themselves soon after. Two years after graduating, he married a wealthy widow named Marie Anna Von Posch who provided him with the means to purchase an impressive estate and set up shop in the city.

From the beginning, Mesmer had an interest in the arts. With his wife's money behind him as well as a growing practice catering to Vienna's rich and powerful, Mesmer soon became a well-known patron. He famously offered up the grounds of his own estate to put on Bastien und Bastienne, the very first opera composed by a certain 12-year-old musical genius named Mozart. For a while, life was good. But Mesmer would soon become obsessed with a series of ideas and experiments that would have him forced out of Vienna in shame.

Mesmer became interested in the work of a Catholic priest and local celebrity healer known as Father Gassner. Gassner's specialty was curing mental illness, known then as demonic possession, by his own particular method of "casting out the demons." During this ritual, the writhing, fitful patients were instructed to first focus intently on Gassner's shiny metal crucifix, then fall down and "die" once he touched them with it. A physician was on hand to pronounce the patients dead, at which point Gassner miraculously exorcised the demons and reanimated them into a state of perfect health. Mesmer was impressed, though he believed that it was Gassner's sparkly metal cross, and not his ability to slay demons, that was doing the trick.

Today, we'd interpret Gassner's success as testimony to the power of suggestion. But Mesmer had other ideas, combining his own burgeoning theories with Gassner's techniques. First, he claimed to have noticed that, while bleeding a patient, the flow of blood increased as he himself approached but subsided as he walked away. Obviously, Mesmer's own body had some sort of profound effect on his patients' bodies and so he proclaimed his new theory "animal magnetism." All that remained was to develop a corresponding physical therapy that would apply this new principle. By using a magnet to create an "artificial tide" within one of his patient's bodies, Mesmer asserted that disruptions in the flow of "psychic ether" throughout the body could be corrected. In less serious cases, cures might be effected simply by the laying of his hands — which he believed were unusually efficient energy conductors for the force of animal magnetism — on a patient's body. When a wealthy English woman came to him complaining of cramps, he attended to the troublesome blockage of psychic ether by placing a magnet on her stomach and moving it around. Miraculously, her pain ceased. Word quickly spread.

Eager to gain acceptance for his theory of animal magnetism — and equally keen to put a few coins in the bank — Mesmer conducted public displays of his miraculous healing powers. Like a modern-day revival healer, Mesmer began attracting flocks of patients. He became more and more flamboyant, developing his act into an elaborate entertainment spectacle. Sometimes, he would apply magnets to "healing points;" often, he would simply put his hands on a patient, sometimes leaving them there for hours. His touch, believers claimed, could send them into "psychic fits" and "magnetic convulsions," a side-effect of dislodging those pesky psychic blockages that were the root of their diseases. Mesmer published a glowing account of his animal magnetism cure in 1775.

His techniques became more and more outlandish. Soon he was immersing patients in vats of water or milk full of metal filings, tying tubes to their limbs, which were in turn connected to magnets immersed in water-filled jugs. Bathers would experience a fit or two as the "blockages" passed and then a cure was proclaimed. Before long, in order to accommodate more patients simultaneously, Mesmer created the "baquet" — a central "magnetized" water vat furnished with multiple iron rods connected to each patient's problem spots.


Demand skyrocketed and Mesmer soon found it sufficient for large groups of patients to simply hold hands in his garden and then be hosed down with "magnetized" water. He wisely suggested his female patients might be better helped if they changed into looser clothes before he "laid his hands" on them. Ever the dedicated physician, Mesmer committed himself to dissolving blockages of psychic ether in their thighs, backsides and bosoms, no matter how long it took. As tales of breast-groping emerged from the Mesmer estate, the Viennese medical society began grumbling.

They found the perfect excuse to discredit him in the case of Maria Theresa Paradis, an attractive and popular 18-year-old pianist who wanted to be cured of her blindness. Mesmer boldly assured her desperate parents that he was up to the challenge. When his groping techniques actually appeared to be working, where the compounds and poultices of Vienna's established medical community had failed for years, the Imperial Morality Police were summoned to shut him down. Before the cure were complete, Maria's mother forcibly removed Maria from Mesmer's care, famously slapping her so hard that her "hysterical blindness" suddenly returned. Mesmer was pronounced a fraud and a pervert. In 1777, he fled Vienna in shame, determined to start anew somewhere else.

The natural choice was Paris, at the time the centre for both debauchery and tolerance. Mesmer was welcomed with open arms, and within a year, his reputation exceeded that of his heyday in Vienna. Though he still had some detractors among the city's conservative physicians and citizens, animal magnetism as a healing technique reached its zenith when Marie Antoinette signed on for a cure. Mesmer began to set up centres throughout France and Europe to teach his techniques to other practitioners.

Nervous about the growing number of magnetic-cure followers, King Louis XVI called upon a commission of respected doctors and scientists, helmed by Ben Franklin, who examined the evidence and subsequently publicly discredited animal magnetism as no more than the power of suggestion. Eventually, Mesmer's popularity faded. Depressed, debunked and fearing the impending French Revolution, Mesmer left Paris in 1785 thus avoiding the unfortunate fate of his old friend Marie Antoinette.

Mesmer eventually settled near Zurich in ever-neutral Switzerland, though he returned briefly to France to try to restore both his reputation and fortune once Napoleon rose to power. Surprisingly, he was successful in both tasks and was offered royal pensions from several European countries. He declined them all, settling back in Switzerland a few years later. Franz Anton Mesmer died on March 15, 1815.

Mesmer's work, however, lived on. Disciples — some sincere, others just out to make a buck — took their own shows on the road. Travelling "mesmerists" were a common sight well into the 19th century. Part entertainers, part "physicians," they combed the countryside in search of new patients, putting on great shows of their skills. Some even achieved considerable reputations as healers. Then, as now, when the power of suggestion and the desperation of patients combine, the results are often impressive.

Although Mesmer's animal magnetism theories remained controversial at the time of his death, his life's work had a great influence on James Braid (1795-1860), a Scottish physician who would have a huge impact on the future of both psychiatry and Las Vegas. After seeing a travelling mesmerist, he became interested in Mesmer's theories and practice, developing his own over time. In Neurypnology or the Rationale of Nervous Sleep, published in 1843, Braid coined the term "hypnotism." It is from Braid, the so-called Father of Hypnotism, that we have the traditional image of the hypnotist swinging a glittering object on string in front of an entranced patient.

Mesmer once stated that his life's goal was to perfect the practice of animal magnetism "so that humanity may no longer be exposed to the incalculable hazards of the use of drugs and their application." It was a lofty goal, and one which countless psychiatrists and doctors have aspired to as well. While the practice of hypnosis — in some ways, the offshoot of animal magnetism — certainly remains popular, the terms Mesmer coined live on as well. Though animal magnetism may mean something a little different than it did in Mesmer's day, the idea is similar — mysterious natural forces exert an amazing influence over our bodies and minds. The romantic notion that we can somehow tap this unseen energy and use it to attract others is an enticing one indeed and probably one that Mesmer would have approved of. Mesmer's very name has even become a verb: to mesmerize — to entrance, to enthrall, to hypnotize, which is exactly what he did.


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