The Man who gave us “Mesmerize”
March 24, 2015 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Franz Anton Mesmer (1735-1815) was a Viennese doctor who incorporated hypnosis (which he called “Animal Magnetism”, meaning that planets had a “tidal” influence on the human body) into his medical practice. His peers considered him a charlatan, but he grabbed the attention of the rich, royal, and famous. And then he volunteered to cure the blind composer and pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis.

von Paradis had woken up suddenly at the age of 3, unable to see. Mesmer told her parents that he’d fix her tics and protruding eyes, but secretly planned to restore her vision. It was all going great (for him) - she’d re-gained partial vision - when her parents stormed in and removed her from his home, amid charges, counter-charges, and various scandalous intimations. von Paradis’ blindness returned, seemingly to her relief. When her vision had improved with Mesmer, she became sensitive to light, found the appearance of things ridiculous, and worst of all, did not play the piano nearly as well (she could not resist looking at her hands).

So he went to France where he practiced without a license, was extraordinarily popular, and became very rich. The only thing he didn’t have was credit for his new ideas and accomplishments. So he applied to all the scientific academies, then the medical ones for membership and approval … and was turned down by all. Eventually, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette suggested Commissions to investigate his claims. If he was vindicated, he’d get a bunch of money and they’d underwrite a school. When he declined this, they instead had a commission into the claims of his disciple Charles d’Eslon’s execution of Mesmer’s techniques.

Among the commissioners were Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Benjamin Franklin, and Antoine-Laurent Lavoiser. Mesmer immediately disavowed and undermined his disciple, thereby protecting himself from the results of the study. The commission found no evidence at all to support the claims, and privately warned the King of the dangers to women from Mesmerism.

Mesmer left France later that year, thereby avoiding the French Revolution. He retired and lived the good life in Switzerland.

*Later practitioners would coin the hypnotism set of words since “animal magnetism” was so tightly tied to his scandalous reputation.
posted by julen (10 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Listen also: Sawbones: Dr. Mesmer and the Power of Animal Magnetism.
posted by kmz at 7:13 AM on March 24, 2015

Just to clarify - hypnotism was actually invented by James Braid and not Mesmer. Mesmer's animal magnetism hypothesis speculated that the human body contained magnetic currents and that it was the blockage of these currents that was the cause of disease. He used a variety of techniques to deak with these "blockages" including the passing of the hands and the baquet. The latter was a tub filled with iron pipes and other implements. Patients would continuously grasp the pipes in order to "align their animal magnetism".

James Braid was experimenting with the passing of the hands technique when he stumbled upon hypnotism. The power of suggestion was known even back then (it was one of the explanations that Benjamin Franklin proposed for some of Mesmer's successes). James Braid speculated that rapport and tiredness of the eyes due to the repetitive motions were the real secret behind the successes of Mesmerism. Thus hypnotism was born.

Having said that, I don't think that fully explains Mesmer. My view is that he simply did a lot of stuff, some of which (sometimes) produced successes. His animal magnetism theory doesn't hold water but simply explaining everything as being the result of "the power of suggestion" seems to me to be a somewhat weak argument as well. After all, I don't believe I've ever heard of a case of blindness being cured through hypnotism - which seems to be the case with von Paradies.

Also, I'm typing this mostly from memory so if any of my so-called "facts" are wrong, please feel free to correct me.
posted by enamon at 7:27 AM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

It is surprising how much credulity still subsists in the world. I suppose all the physicians in France put together have not made so much money during the time he has been here, as he has done.
-- Ben Franklin (on Mesmer)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:33 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fascinating: I never knew how prominently music featured in Mesmer’s life and work. By way of accompaniment: Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Armonica in C-Major.
posted by misteraitch at 7:34 AM on March 24, 2015

Funny, I was just ruminating about blindness before I read this article, which told the bizarre story of a woman who was upset by being partially cured of blindness--supposedly. What an interesting story! I had always assumed Mesmer invented mesmerism. Wrong again.

Although if you'd asked me what instrument Mesmer played, I maybe could have guessed the glass (h)armonica, with its otherworldly sound.

It is surprising how much credulity still subsists in the world.

My father, a staunchly behaviorist psychiatrist (read: follower of B.F. Skinner), did not believe hypnotism was real. I don't know if he's right. I'm like Ben Franklin: I'll believe it (maybe) when I see it. When I was "hypnotized" once, I wasn't, really.
posted by kozad at 7:42 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

enamon. I'm glad to be corrected/clarified. I've read a lot about Mesmer in the past few days (some of it less than objective or demonstrating no sign of critical thinking), and I think you are right to emphasize that it was adjacent/a precursor to hypnotism. It seems to me there were hypnotic(ish) aspects to his methodology, but you are right in that it is not the way we understand hypnotism today.
posted by julen at 7:58 AM on March 24, 2015

And there's a movie, written by Dennis Potter and starring Alan Rickman (which made me think it could be amazing). It's just okay.
posted by ovvl at 9:08 AM on March 24, 2015

I was about to be like "LOL wut Biggie wasn't a Viennese doctor" and then I realized I was thinking of "Hypnotize", so never mind.
posted by passerby at 2:11 PM on March 24, 2015

> When I was "hypnotized" once, I wasn't, really.

Many people do in fact claim that they aren't hypnotized - they just choose to do the things the hypnotist has told them to do...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:14 PM on March 25, 2015

I haven't been on for several days, but just came here to post this, and LobsterMitten suggested I pop it in here:

"Franz Anton Mesmer arrives in Paris to present a revolutionary theory to the French Academy of Sciences. He claims he has harnessed a universal life-force called ‘animal magnetism’ that can cure all disease." Interactive digital storytelling on an odd but influential episode in medical history from the Wellcome Collection. It's, well, mesmerizing.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

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