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Mesmerism: When Leeches in the Eyes Doesn't Work

Ever wondered where the terms "mesmerising" and "animal magnetism" come from? No? Well you're about to find out anyway so shut up.


Franz Mesmer was being run out of Vienna. He had to escape the scandal across the city that was created when he only partially cured the blindness of a 18 year old pianist.


Maybe it was his fault, he should have tried much harder to fully cure her vision.


But how could anyone have ever doubted the universal cure of making everyone drink iron and then sticking magnets to them?


It might not be as stupid as it sounds.

(But some of it definitely is)



Mesmer had established himself as a doctor in Vienna in 1768 after moving there to study medicine in 1759, and had primarily studied and worked on the influences of the planets on the human body, believing that tides could affect the human body just like the sea.

This was the subject of his doctoral thesis (even if he copied some of it).


It was 1774 and due to the 18th century tradition of making sick people drink and eat things we would now determine to be poisonous (see: mercury and radium), Mesmer had made a woman with hysteria drink some iron. He had a breakthrough when he was able to use magnets that he waved around to create an 'artificial tide' which she had felt moving inside her and had cured her hysteria (I suspect out of surprise and her desire to not go back there).


But this resounding success couldn't have been just down to the magnets, surely?

His theory soon developed, which was that all humans contained a magnetic fluid in them anyway (removing the need to drink iron), and that it was blocking of this fluid within the channels across the body that caused disease. When the channels became unblocked, they would go into a 'crisis' and soon be relieved. Some people just couldn't control their magnetic fluid themselves and needed help. He concluded that he had inevitably contributed his own 'animal magnetism' which was actually what had caused the artificial tide of magnetic fluid to move and cure the woman. After a few experiments which proved that people didn't respond to magnets they didn't know were there (which damaged his reputation somewhat) he sacked off the magnets all together, determining his animal magnetism was sufficient, when of course he was physically rubbing and touching these people.


I call this "The Essense of Mesmerism" and I'm so glad it exists. From the Wellcome Collection

Not that Mesmer's practice was particularly new or innovative, it was similar to a number of processes that had been used by faith healers for centuries. Supposedly, his importance in the study of this type of healing is his insistence that the effects had a scientific basis. As a secular man and scientist, he clashed with people who claimed that his successes were miracles or reflective of any form of religion, even though his primary influence to treat patients with magnet therapy was a Jesuit priest called Maximilian Hell. Father Hell. Yes, really.


Unlike the 'charlatans' that many had boxed him in with, Mesmer took part in numerous panels and experiments to prove the scientific basis behind his methods.

They weren't generally very successful for him, but that's beside the point.

One of these cases he took on to prove himself was that of Maria Theresa Paradis, a pianist who had been blind since childhood and unsuccessfully treated by people with methods such as electrocuting and putting leeches in her eyes. Incredible that didn't work. Mesmer claimed he had been able to partially cure Maria, with her being “frightened on beholding the human face”, which is fair.

But this wasn't enough.


There were rumours that the two had got far too close,

A doctor declared him a charlatan,

Her father couldn't have people losing interest in his blind daughter,

And Maria herself just wanted everyone to leave her alone.


Again, fair.

And so in 1778 he left for Paris. The well-to-do of the city were split, between people who thought he was a fraudster and those who felt he'd been treated unfairly, but there were still enough people who wanted his treatment that he had to start offering group therapy by way of a subscription fee.

A lovely little baquet. Image from the Wellcome Collection

He did this by way of what he called 'a baquet'. Essentially a giant wooden tub of water with metal rods sticking out of it would be in the centre, while the room was made ambient and relaxing with velvet everywhere, incense and low light.


People would hold the rods, place them to the parts of their bodies needing treatment and after being touched by an assistant fall into a trance of laughing, screaming or fits which must have been startling at best.


Once Monsieur Mesmer Magic Hands showed up (I made that name up) he would touch his patients and they would be immediately released from their trance and cured.

Despite two French Royal Commissions (one of which was ordered by the Queen of France when he wrote asking for money) and a Royal Academy investigation finding that, while some sick people seemed to be cured by his methods, there was no evidence of any magnetic fluid inside people (shocker), many carried on Mesmer's practice and developed it. They almost immediately kicked the idea of magnetic fluid to the side and continued the practice of what they referred to as 'the power of suggestion' which they believed was the true source of symptom relief, when led by an experienced and charismatic person. While in France and other parts of Europe the debate between whether Mesmerism was a huge cruel hoax or a miracle treatment for incurable patients was raging in public, in England it was mainly confined to the pages of journals and magazines. The Zoist was the best known Mesmeric journal which was set up and edited by John Elliotson.

He was a progressive phrenologist who had been expelled from University College Hospital for using mesmerism which isn't massively encouraging.


He set up the journal as a source of first hand accounts, case studies and general information and published a number of letters and accounts by Harriet Martinau. She wrote a number of excellent articles, such as "Mesmeric Cure of a Cow" and the sequel "Distressing effects in a Doctor upon the removal of a Disease from a Cow with Mesmerism": The Reckoning.


Donkey Mesmerists. Image from the Wellcome Collection

Martinau was a valiant advocate of mesmerism, after it cured her of her long illness (sort of), and she compiled the booklet "Letters on Mesmerism" which featured a number of first hand accounts of mesmeric cures. These weren't enough to fend off the mockery of many people and satirical cartoons and articles run abound, usually involving donkeys.

As time went on the scientific community accepted the benefits of mesmerism, a lot of it thanks to the work of the Scottish surgeon James Braid. Although soon enough, particularly in Britain, they referred to it almost exclusively as hypnotism (a term he coined) to try and distance itself from all that magnets and tide stuff. They concluded that its benefits were caused by the somnambulist state brought on by the power of suggestion and an individual patient's susceptibility. Put simply, if the patient believed that hypnosis could work for them, they could be put into a trance and told what they were thinking, until they were thinking it too.


Now we use hypnosis for all sorts of symptom management, like pain relief, improved sleep, reducing anxiety and even lowering blood pressure, but we have left behind the days where a man with some rods in a bucket of water could cure your ovarian cysts, or breathing in the ear could cure your deafness.


Mesmeric Breathing into the Ear. Image from the Wellcome Collection

Sources: - Hypnosis: Developments in Research and New Perspectives. Edited by Erika Fromm and Ronald E. Shore, 2007 - Letters on Mesmerism. Compiled by Harriet Martinau, 1919 - Psychology’s History of Being Mesmerized. Psych Central. Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S - The Zoist Journal (Vols 1-13 available on Google Books) 1844-1856 - Hypnosis in History, hypnosis.edu (featured almost entirely because I did a short quiz and they gave me a certificate) - Numerous "mesmerism" illustrations, Wellcome Collection - Was this hypnotic health craze an elaborate hoax or a medical breakthrough? National Geographic, Antonio Fernandez, March 2019 - A Plain and Rational Account of the Nature and Effects of Animal Magnetism: In a Series of letters. With Notes and an Appendix. Pearson, John - W. and J. Stratford, 1790. - Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Lydia Kang, Nate Pedersen, 2017. Workman Publishing

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