ANTON MESMER was born on 23rd May 1734, near Lake Constance, on what
is now the German side. He received a good and varied education, which
ended with a medical qualification at the age of 32. His dissertation
was on the influence of heavenly bodies on people's health, which he
supposed to be by means of "animal gravity".
At the age of 40 he became interested in the effects of magnets on the
body and believed that he had discovered an entirely new principle of
healing involving "animal magnetism". This "animal magnetism"
that he used was different from physical magnetism in that he believed
that he could "magnetise" paper, glass, dogs and all manner
of other substances.
His cure of Maria Theresa Paradis, mentioned in Chapter 11 of The Principles
, occurred when he was 43, but the repercussions of this affair made
it necessary to move from Vienna to Paris, which was to be the scene
of his greatest fame.
There he met ready acceptance from the populace but an equally strong
scepticism from the medical profession, who attributed the effects he
produced to the imagination of the patients rather than to his supposed
There were so many poor people coming for treatment that he had to resort
to methods which could help many at once. He first designed a magnetic
baquet, a wooden tub nearly five feet across, and one foot deep, filled
with water, patterns of bottles and iron filings. Out of this tub projected
iron rods which were held by the patients. Later he "magnetised"
a tree, so that patients could be healed by holding ropes hanging from
its branches. The most noticeable effect of these devices was to induce
a "crisis": convulsions.
His prime supporter in Paris was a doctor, D'Eslon, who was to be struck
off the register for his pains. In time, however, their ways were to
part when Mesmer became annoyed by D'Eslon practising independently.
After the attack by the Royal Commission into Mesmerism, and the continuing
opposition of the medical profession, Mesmer chose another means to
promote his ideas and support himself. This was by setting up an organisation
- the Society of Honour - which consisted of a clinic, a teaching establishment
and a register of qualified members who had received his training, and
who paid for the privilege. In time, as is the nature of these things,
there arose a division in this organisation also, when other members
disagreed with Mesmer.
He finally left Paris at the age of 54, and after some years settled
back near Lake Constance where he had been born. Here he seems to have
led a quiet and contented life, doing a little medicine, playing his
glass harmonica, and remaining detached from the outside world until
his death on 15th March 1815, at the age of 85. He never changed his
views on animal magnetism but did return to the Catholic Church from
which he had lapsed for most of his life.
Friedrich) Anton Mesmer
born May 23, 1734, Iznang auf der Höri, near Radolfzell, on the
German side of Lake Constance; died March 5, 1815, Meersburg, Germany.
Franz Anton Mesmer
was born and raised in the Swabian village of Iznang auf der Höri,
near the Bodensee (Lake of Constance). His father was a forester employed
by the archbishop of Konstanz; his mother the daughter of a locksmith.
It was a large family, Franz Anton was the third of nine children, Catholic,
and not particularly prosperous.
studies in a local monastic school in Konstanz, Mesmer commenced the
study of philosophy at the Jesuit university of Dillingen, Bavaria,
changing in 1752 to theology, presumably as a scholarship student preparing
for the priesthood. He continued his studies from 1753 at the University
of Ingolstadt, where he soon abandoned theology. It is not known when
and where he obtained his doctorate in philosophy. s
In 1759 Mesmer went
to Vienna, first studying law, but then changed to medicine under Gerard
van Swieten (1700-1772) and Anton de Haen (1704-1776). He received his
medical doctorate on May 27, 1766 with a dissertation on the influence
of the planets on the human body: Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum
influxu. At the time of its defense, however, the thesis did not strike
the Viennese authorities as a revolutionary new theory of medicine.
On the contrary, it showed a common tendency to speculate about invisible
fluids, which derived both from Cartesianism and from the later queries
in Newton’s Opticks as well as from Newton’s remarks about
the «most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross
bodies» in the last paragraph of his Principia.
A year later he
began practice as a member of the faculty of medicine in what was one
of Europe’s most advanced medical centers; for the Vienna school
was then in its prime, owing to the patronage of Maria Theresia and
the leadersship of Gerhard van Swieten and Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799).
By the time he began
to propound his theory of animal magnetism or mesmerism, Mesmer had
risen through the educational systems of Bavaria and Austria and had
advanced to a position of some prominence in Viennese society through
his marriage to a wealthy widow, Maria Anna von Posch, on January 16,
While a medical
student at the University of Vienna, Mesmer was impressed by the writings
of the Renaissance mystic physician Paracelsus (Theophrastus Philippus
Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541) and attempted to rationalise
a belief in astrological influences on human health as the result of
planetary forces through a subtle, invisible fluid. It was a friend
of his, the astronomist Maximilian Hell (1720-1792), a court astronomer
and Jesuit priest, who used magnets in the treatment of disease, and
influenced Mesmer to conduct his first attempts at healing with a steel
magnet. This learned man was convinced that every body possesse a magnetic
force which connects all human beings.
The immediate source
of Mesmer’s fluid was Richard Mead’s (1673-1754) De imperio
solis ac lunae in corpora humana et morbis inde oriundis (London, 1704),
a work upon which Mesmer’s thesis drew heavily. Mead had argued
that gravity produced «tides» in the atmosphere as well
as in water and that the planets could therefore affect the fluidal
balance of the human body.
The modern history
of hypnosis, however, begins not with a physician but with a clergyman,
a catholic priest who lived at Klosters, Switzerland. Father Johann
Gassner used hypnotic techniques to perform what he considered to be
exorcisms. Mesmer was said to have watched a number of performances
by Gassner in the early 1770's. Mesmer, unable to believe Gassner's
hypothesis that patients were possessed by demons, believed that the
metal crucifix held by the Father was responsible for magnetizing the
patient and hence developed his ideas and explanation of the results
into a theory of animal magnetism, which he first tested in 1774 by
treating a 28 year old female, Franziska Osterlin.
Mesmer applied magnets
to his patients’ bodies and produced remarkable results, especially
in the case of a young woman suffering from hysteria. Unlike Hell, Mesmer
did not attribute his cures to any power in the magnets themselves.
Instead, he argued that the body was analogous to a magnet and that
the fluid ebbed and flowed according to the laws of magnetic attraction.
Having moved from
«animal gravitation» to «animal magnetism,»,
in 1775 he announced his new theory in Sendschreiben an einen auswärtigen
Arzt. This work was reprinted several times.
Mesmer may have
believed that he possessed "animal magnetism" and that he
possessed healing forces; basing his practice on these concepts, he
developed therapeutic sessions resembling séances. Mesmer at
first used magnets, electrodes, and other devices to effect his cures,
but, after arousing suspicion among the Viennese physicians, he preferred
to utilize his hands. At the séances several patients sat around
a vat of dilute sulfuric acid while holding hands or grasping iron bars
protruding from the solution.
By this time Mesmer
had moved into a comfortable town house in Vienna, which he used as
a clinic. His marriage brought him enough wealth to pursue his experiments
at his leisure and enough leisure to indulge his passion for music.
Mesmer knew Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), he seems to have
been acquainted with Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and saw a great
deal of the Mozarts. The first production of a Mozart opera, the Bastien
and Bastienne, took place in Mesmer’s garden, and Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart (1756-1791) later made room for mesmerism in a scene in Cosi
In general, the
ten years years between Mesmer’s marriage in 1768 and his departure
from Vienna in 1778 seem to have been a time of prosperity and some
prominence. He built up a repertoire of techniques and cures; he gave
lectures and demonstrations; and he travelled through Hungary, Switzerland,
and Bavaria, where he was made a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciencess
at Munich in 1775. Mesmer also developed a taste for publicity. He staged
and announced his cures in a manner that offended some of Vienna’s
most influentual doctors.
In 1777 an 18 year
old, blind, female pianist, singer, and composer Maria-Theresa von Paradies,
was brought to Mesmer. Her father had close relations to the court of
the empress dowager, Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, with whom the
girl was a favourite. The girl had been blind since birth, but no physician
had been able to find anything wrong with her eyes.
Under the hands
of Mesmer mademoiselle Paradies gradually regained what she supposedly
never had had. She recovered her sight after treatment by Mesmer despite
the fact that she had been under the care of Europe's leading eye specialist
for ten years without improvement.
From the medical
world of Vienna people flocked to witness this "miracle",
and Mesmer enjoyed a period of interst in and respect for his epoch-making
methods. But then the patient, who had received an artists scholarship
from the empress, during the therapy lost her ability to play the piano,
possibly due to the inundation of visual stimuli ruining her nerves.
Influenced by jealous doctors, the child's mother took her away from
Mesmer's care before the cure was complete. In an emotional scene, the
mother struck her child across the face because she resisted leaving
Dr. Mesmer's clinic and the hysterical blindness reasserted itself.
This makes her father
stage a plot. Accused of the practice of magic, Mesmer decided to leave
Austria and perhaps also to leave his wife, who did not accompany him
through the later episodes of his career.
The results obtained
by Mesmer in his treatment of the blind pianist, seen in hindsight,
was probably a result of the effect of hypnosis in psychotherapy. Mesmer's
fiercest opponents in this case was doctors Anton Freiherr von Stoerck
(1731-1803), life physician to the empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780)
and emperor Franz I (1708-1765, reigned from 1745); and the eye specialist
Joseph Barth (1745-1818).
The next and most
spectacular episode began with Mesmer’s arrival in Paris in February
1778. He set up a clinic, very lucrative, in the Place Vendôme
and the nearby village of Créteil and then began an elaborate
campaign to win recognition of his «discovery» from France’s
leading scientific bodies. Helped by some influential converts and an
ever-ancreasing throng of patients’ who testified that they had
been cured of everything from paralysiss to what the French then called
«vapeurs,» Mesmer seized the public’s imagination
and alienated the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris, the
Royal Society of Medicine, and the Academy of Sciences. His patrons,
however, included Louis XVI (1754-1793) and members of the royal court.
The defenders of
orthodox medicine took offense at what the public found most appealing
about mesmerism - not its theory but its extravagant practixes. Instead
of bleeding and applying purgatives, the mesmerists ran their fingers
over their patient’s bodies, searching out «poles»
through which they infused mesmeric fluid.
By the 1780’s
Mesmer had given up the use of Magnets; but he had perfected other devices,
notably his famous magnetic baquet, a wooden «tub,» nearly
five feet across, and one feet deep, filled with water, a mesmeric version
of the Leyden jar. Out of this tub projected iron rods that were held
by the patients. Later he "magnetised" a tree, so that patients
could be healed by holding ropes hanging from its branches. The most
noticeable effect of these devices was to induce a "crisis":
convulsions. He reasoned that his own body acted as an animal type of
magnet, reinforcing the fluid in the bodies of his patients. Disease
resulted from an «obstacle» to the flow of the fluid. Mesmerizing
broke through the obstacle by producing a «crisis,» often
signaled by convulsions, and then restoring «harmony», a
state in which the body responded to the salubrious flow of fluid through
all of nature.
His prime supporter
in Paris was a doctor, D'Eslon, who was to be struck off the register
for his pains. In time, however, their ways were to part when D'Eslon
practising independently annoyed Mesmer.
itself to the French as a «natural» medicine at a time when
the French cult of nature and the popular enthusiasm for science had
reached a peak. Mesmer did not produce any proof of his theory or any
rigorous description of experiments that could be repeated and verified
by others; but like contemporary chemists and physicists, he sseemd
able to put his invisible fluid to work. Scores of Parisianss fell into
«crises» at the touch of Mesmer’s hand and recovered
with a new sense of being at harmony with the world. The mesmerists
published hundreds of carefully documented and evene notarized case
histories. And they produced an enormous barrage of propaganda - at
least 200 books and pamphlets, more than were written on any single
subject during the decade before the opening phase of the Revolution
Thus mesmerism became
a cause célébre, a movement which eventually eclipsed
Mesmer himself. He limited his parts in the polemics to two pamphlets,
written by or for him: Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme
animal (1779) and Précis historique des faits relatifs au magnétisme
animal (1781). The first contained twenty-seven rather vague propositions,
which is as close as Mesmer came to systematizing his ideas. He left
the system-building to his disciples, notably Nicolas Bergasse (1750-1832),
who produced many of the articles and letters issued in Mesmer’s
name as well as his own mesmeric treatise, Considérations sue
le magnetisme animal (1784). The disciples also formed a sort of masonic
secret society, the Société de l’harmonie universelle,
which developed affiliates in most of France’s major cities.
At this society
Mesmer lectures and educated some 300 pupils, who soon were active in
40 societies all over France. Mesmer again achieved a tremendous success
with the public, and with the subscription connected to his name by
his pupils, he became a rich man and was at the height of his influence.
In 1785 one of his pupils, in a breach of confidence, published the
doctrines of Mesmer, which were to be kept a secret (Aphorismes des
M. Mesmer; Paris, 1785).
The spread of the
new medicine alarmed not only the old doctors but also the government,
and in 1784, on the initiative of king Louis XVI, a commission of the
French Academy of Sciences was established to evaluate his practice.
The commission was composed of distinguished doctors and academicians,
including Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
(1743-1794), Joseph-Ignace Guillotine (1738-1814), Benjamin Franklin
The report of the
commission concluded that far from being able to cure disease, Mesmer’s
fluid did not exist. They termed him a deceiver and ascribed Mesmer's
"healings" to the fantasy of the individual, and physicians
using his method were threatened with the loss of their practice. The
only member of the commission to speak for Mesmer was the famous botanist
Adran Laurent de Jussieu. Another report, of the Royal Medical Society,
presented the same conclusion. The report badly damaged the movement,
which later dissolved into schisms and heresies. In 1785 Mesmer was
forced to leave the city, leaving his followers to their quarrels. After
a period of travelling through England, Austria, Germany, and Italy,
he settled in Switzerland, where he spent most of the last thirty years
of his life in relative seclusion.
Maybe he felt som
revenge in the fact that one of the members of the commission fell victim
to the invention of another. Joseph Ignace Guillotine was the principal
inventor of the machine that bears his name; Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
was the founder of moderne chemistry - on May 8, 1794, his became the
finest head ever to fall for the guillotine.
Despite his bellicose
colleagues, however, it was the French revolution that ruined Mesmer’s
practice. During the revolution he lost his entire fortune and fled
to England. During 1792/1793 he was in Karlsruhe, then in Wagenhausen
bei Stein am Rhein and some other places in Switzerland.
In 1798 Mesmer returned
to France in order to attempt to regain his fortune. In 1802 he moved
to Versaille and made a settlement with the French government, which
granted him a small pension. In 1803 Mesmer left France for good, first
living in Meersburg am Bodensee, and then retired to Frauenfeld in Thurgau,
where he, forgotten, practiced medicine in all quiet from 1807. Here
he seems to have led a quiet and contented life, doing a little medicine,
playing his glass harmonica, and remaining detached from the outside
In the meantime,
however, animal magnetism was practiced as a therapy all over Germany.
In 1812 professor Karl Christian Wolfart (1778-1832) from Berlin visited
the lonely Mesmer at the request of the Prussian government in order
to be educated in his methods. At the same time Johann Ferdinand Koreff
(1783-1851) was already in Paris on a similar mission. Wolfart remained
Mesmer’s staunchest supporter, and instigated the printing of
Mesmer’s main work, Mesmerismus, oder System der Wechselwirkungen,
. . . in Berlin in 1814. In the summer of 1813 Mesmer moved to Konstanz,
one year later to the village of Riedetsweiler near Meersburg, soon
moving on to Meersburg, where he died on March 5, 1815. His memorial
at the beautiful cemetary of Meersburg was designed by Wolfart. He never
changed his views on animal magnetism but did return to the Catholic
Church from which he had lapsed for most of his life.
In 1814 the Abbe
Faria suggested that the phenomena described by Mesmer were not due
to animal magnetism, but actually due to suggestions. However, the popularity
of Mesmer was so well established that Faria's hypothesis was soon forgotten.
In the early nineteenth
century animal magnetism was in high fashion in Germany, where his system
of therapeutics, mesmerism, had numerous adherents in all walks of society,
and influenced both natural philosophy and Romanticism.
Although many of
his learned contemporaries regarded Mesmer's practice as quackery, his
theory of animal magnetism laid the foundations of modern hypnosis and
As a scientific
theory mesmerism offered only a thin and unoriginal assortment of ideas.
Although Mesmer’s own writings contained little sustained theorizing,
they provided enough for his enemies to detect alle manner of ocultist
and vitalisstic influences and to align him with William Maxwell, the
Scottish physician, author of De Medicina Magnetica (1779), Robert Fludd
(1574-1637), Jean Baptiste van Helmont (1577-1644), and Paracelsus (1493-1541)
- when they did not categorize him with Cagliostro. This version of
his intellectual ancestry seems convinving enough, if one adds Sir Isaac
Newton (1643-1727) and Richard Mead to the list. But nothing proves
that Mesmer was a charlatan. He seems to have believed sincerely in
his theory, although he also showed a fierce determination to convert
it into cash: he charged ten louis a month for the use of his «tubs;
and he made a fortune from the Société de l’Harmonie
Universelle, which, in return, claimed exclusive proprietorship of his
Later groups of
hypnotists, particularly the mesmeric sects of Lyons and Strasbourg,
abandoned the hypothesis of a cosmic fluid. In the nineteenth century
hypnosis, shorn of Mesmer’s cosmology and perfected by James Braid
and Jean-Martin Charcot, became an accepted medical practice. And finally,
through Charcot’s impact on Freud, mesmerism exerted som influence
on the development of psychoanalysis, another unorthodox product of
the Viennese school.
One of those who
embraced Mesmerism was John Elliotson (1791-1868), who was also a cinvinced
follower of Franz Josef Gall (1758-1828). Elliotson advocated the doctrines
of these two gentlemen in his own magazine, The Zoits, A Journal of
Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism and Their Application to human welfare.
Mesmer was born
in the village of Iznang, Swabia. After studying at the Jesuit universities
of Dillingen and Ingolstadt, he took up the study of medicine at the
University of Vienna in 1759. In 1766 he published a doctoral dissertation
with the Latin title De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum, which
discussed the influence of the Moon and the planets on the human body
and on disease (medical astrology). Evidence assembled by Frank A. Pattie
suggests that Mesmer plagiarized his dissertation from a work by Richard
Soon after receiving
his degree, Mesmer married a wealthy widow and established himself as
a physician in Vienna. He lived on a splendid estate and patronised
the arts. When court intrigue prevented the performance of Bastien und
Bastienne, the first opera composed by the twelve-year-old musical prodigy
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mesmer offered his own gardens for the production.
Mozart later immortalized his former patron by including a joking reference
to Mesmer in his opera Cosi fan tutte.
The advent of animal
In 1774 Mesmer used a magnet to produce an "artificial tide"
in a patient. Mesmer had her swallow a preparation containing iron,
and then attached magnets to various parts of her body. She reported
feeling streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body and was
relieved of her symptoms for several hours. Mesmer did not believe that
the magnets had achieved the cure on their own. He felt that he had
contributed animal magnetism, which had accumulated in his own body,
to her. He soon stopped using magnets as a part of his treatment.
In 1775 Mesmer was
invited to give his opinion before the Munich Academy of Sciences on
the exorcisms carried out by Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779), a priest
and healer. Mesmer said that while Gassner was sincere in his beliefs,
his cures were due to the fact that he possessed a high degree of animal
magnetism. This confrontation between Mesmer's secular ideas and Gassner's
religious beliefs marked the end of Gassner's career as well as, according
to Henri Ellenberger, the emergence of dynamic psychiatry.
The scandal which
followed Mesmer's unsuccessful attempt to treat the blindness of an
18-year-old musician, Maria Theresa Paradis, led him to leave Vienna
in 1777. The following year Mesmer moved to Paris, rented an apartment
in a part of the city preferred by the wealthy and powerful and established
a medical practice. Paris soon divided into those who thought he was
a charlatan, who had been forced to flee from Vienna, and those who
thought he had made a great discovery.
In his first years
in Paris, Mesmer tried and failed to get either the Royal Academy of
Sciences or the Royal Society of Medicine to provide official approval
for his doctrines. He found only one physician of high professional
and social standing, Charles d'Eslon, to become a disciple. In 1779,
with d'Eslon's encouragement, Mesmer wrote an 88-page book Mémoire
sur la découverte du magnétisme animal, to which he appended
his famous 27 Propositions. These propositions outlined his theory at
According to d'Eslon,
Mesmer understood health as the free flow of the process of life through
thousands of channels in our bodies. Illness was caused by obstacles
to this flow. Overcoming these obstacles and restoring flow produced
crises, which restored health. When Nature failed to do this spontaneously,
contact with a conductor of animal magnetism was a necessary and sufficient
remedy. Mesmer aimed to aid or provoke the efforts of Nature. To cure
an insane person, for example, involved causing a fit of madness. The
advantage of magnetism involved accelerating such crises without danger.
Mesmer treated patients
both individually and in groups. With individuals he would sit in front
of his patient with his knees touching the patient's knees, pressing
the patient's thumbs in his hands, looking fixedly into the patient's
eyes. Mesmer made "passes", moving his hands from patients'
shoulders down along their arms. He then pressed his fingers on the
patient's hypochondriac region (the area below the diaphragm), sometimes
holding his hands there for hours. Many patients felt peculiar sensations
or had convulsions that were regarded as crises and supposed to bring
about the cure.
By 1780 Mesmer had
more patients than he could treat individually and he established a
collective treatment known as the baquet. An English physician, who
observed Mesmer, described the treatment as follows:
In the middle of
the room is placed a vessel of about a foot and a half high which is
called here a "baquet". It is so large that twenty people
can easily sit round it; near the edge of the lid which covers it, there
are holes pierced corresponding to the number of persons who are to
surround it; into these holes are introduced iron rods, bent at right
angles outwards, and of different heights, so as to answer to the part
of the body to which they are to be applied. Besides these rods, there
is a rope which communicates between the baquet and one of the patients,
and from him is carried to another, and so on the whole round. The most
sensible effects are produced on the approach of Mesmer, who is said
to convey the fluid by certain motions of his hands or eyes, without
touching the person. I have talked with several who have witnessed these
effects, who have convulsions occasioned and removed by a movement of
In 1784, without Mesmer requesting it, King Louis XVI appointed four
members of the Faculty of Medicine as commissioners to investigate animal
magnetism as practiced by d'Eslon. At the request of these commissioners
the King appointed five additional commissioners from the Royal Academy
of Sciences. These included the chemist Lavoisier, the physician Joseph-Ignace
Guillotin, the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly and the American ambassador
The commission conducted
a series of experiments aimed, not at determining whether Mesmer's treatment
worked, but whether he had discovered a new physical fluid. The commission
concluded that there was no evidence for such a fluid. Whatever benefit
the treatment produced was attributed to "imagination." In
1785 Mesmer left Paris. His activities over the next twenty years are
followers was Armand-Marc-Jacques Chastenet, Marquis de Puységur
(1751-1825), who discovered induced or artificial somnambulism.