Was this hypnotic health craze an elaborate hoax or a medical breakthrough?

In 18th-century Vienna and Paris, mesmerism was all the rage —with Marie Antoinette among its followers—but its success aroused skeptics, including Benjamin Franklin.

By Antonio Fernandez
Published 13 Mar 2019, 07:54 GMT
Employing his theories of animal magnetism, Franz Mesmer conducts a therapy session with his patients positioned ...
Employing his theories of animal magnetism, Franz Mesmer conducts a therapy session with his patients positioned around a large baquet.
Photograph by <p> Josse/Scala, Florence</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

Wearing gold slippers and a lavender silk robe, physician Franz Anton Mesmer moved slowly around the silent, dimly lit room while waving a metal wand. A baquet, a large oak tub of magnetized water, sat in the middle of the richly appointed salon. Mesmer’s patients surrounded the baquet and pressed its protruding metal rods to the afflicted areas of their bodies. Ethereal notes of a glass harmonica, its sound resembling that of clinking glasses, tinkled as incense wafted through the air. After a flick of his wand or a touch of his hand, some of Mesmer’s patients fell into trances, cathartic and curative “crises” that could resemble violent convulsions, fits of laughter, or piercing shrieks.

An 18-century engraving of Franz Anton Mesmer, the German doctor who "discovered" mesmerism.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Animal magnetism

Mesmer’s unorthodox treatment style began in late 1774. For two years, he had applied the standard medical remedies of the 18th century, including blistering and bleeding, to a 28-year-old patient, Franziska Österlin, whose maladies ranged from earaches to melancholy. Finding traditional tactics unsuccessful, Mesmer followed the suggestion of Jesuit priest and astronomer Maximilian Hell, who attached magnets to his patients to treat disease. Mesmer applied this same magnetic therapy to Österlin and pronounced her cured. 

Mesmer asserted in his doctoral dissertation that the gravitational force of the planets, sun, and moon also affected the human body. But after his encounter with Father Hell, Mesmer revised his “animal gravitation” theory to one of “animal magnetism.” This universal force was not external gravitation but rather an internal force. Mesmer began to base his medical practice on his belief that an invisible fluid ran through all living things. Disease resulted when the fluid’s flow became blocked. Health could be restored through contact with a conductor of animal magnetism. The magnets in Father Hell’s therapy were superfluous, Mesmer argued, as Mesmer himself, or any object that he magnetized, could restore the flow.

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer’s 1779 treatise on "The Discovery of Animal Magnetism"
Photograph by Granger, Album

In 1775 Mesmer shared his discovery of animal magnetism with physicians and scientific academies, inviting their comments. The one reply he received was dismissive. Mesmer then attempted to demonstrate the treatment’s success to physician Jan Ingenhousz. Ingenhousz realized that Österlin only responded to objects that she believed were magnets or that were connected with Mesmer, but not other magnets he had hidden in the room. After she failed to respond to them, Ingenhousz publicly denounced Mesmer as a fraud. (Read more about the 20th-century fake doctor and his odd method of curing impotence.)

To redeem his reputation and demonstrate animal magnetism’s effectiveness, Mesmer took on a difficult case. Blind since childhood, 18-year-old pianist Maria Theresa Paradis had been treated by leading Viennese physicians with blistering plasters, leeches, and electric shocks through her eyes, to no effect. She began treatment with Mesmer in 1777. He claimed to have partially restored Maria’s eyesight, noting that she was “frightened on beholding the human face” and could imitate the expressions painted on small figurines.

Mesmer’s apparent success was followed by accusations from a triumvirate of detractors: a prominent physician, who declared Mesmer a charlatan; Maria’s father, who feared audiences would lose interest if his daughter were cured; and Maria herself, who was irritated by the constant testing and struggled with her musical performances. Mesmer nonetheless continued the treatment and invited the public to witness her imminent recovery. But upon Maria’s return home, her family reported that she was still blind. Mesmer’s attempt at accreditation had failed once more.

Escape to Paris

Discredited and derided in Vienna, Mesmer left for Paris in January 1778. The City of Light seemed willing to embrace Mesmer’s novel style of treatment. Establishing a practice in the luxurious Hôtel de Bouillon, the charismatic Mesmer soon found himself inundated with as many as 20 patients a day. The baquet thus became his self-devised method of mass treatment and his sessions a form of group therapy.

Patients held hands around the magnetized vessel, their physical connection further facilitating the flow—and health-giving power—of animal magnetism. The combination of soft lighting, soothing music, and Mesmer’s enthralling movements around the room produced what is now recognized as a form of hypnotism. In the 18th century it was called mesmerism.

To be used in his therapy, Franz Mesmer invented the baquet, a wooden vessel that he filled with “magnetized water” and attached ropes and metal rods, each with a magnet at its base.
Photography by Alamy, ACI

Mesmer hoped the medical and scientific communities would be swayed by his patients’ glowing testimonials. The French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine both repeatedly rebuffed or ignored Mesmer and his claims of a miraculous panacea.

Royal performance

In the years leading up to the French Revolution, mesmerism started to take on a significantly political dimension. Openly challenging the institutions of the ancien régime, Mesmer argued that freedom was as necessary for happiness as it was for health. Because physical harmony and social harmony shared a connection, the republic should be founded on the sovereignty of citizens, not a monarchical and feudal system.

In August 1784 King Louis XVI (whose wife, Marie-Antoinette, was a patient of Mesmer) ordered a commission to evaluate Mesmer and his treatment methods. The nine-member committee—which included American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin, astronomer Jean Bailly, chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and physician Joseph Guillotin—evaluated Mesmer protégé Dr. Charles d’Eslon. The committee’s purpose was to examine the practice of animal magnetism in general, not the methods of an individual practitioner.

After testing the contents of the baquet, observing group treatment sessions, and undergoing treatment themselves, the committee concluded that Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism was “destitute of foundation,” as it was impossible to prove the existence of a fluid that lacked taste, colour, or scent. When the commission’s report was published, Mesmer lost much of the public’s support and became the scorned subject of satires. He left Paris, living in relative obscurity until his death in 1815.

Healing powers

The commission had focused on whether Mesmer had discovered a new type of universal fluid, not on whether a patient’s symptoms were alleviated or cured. To that end, they acknowledged that the power of suggestion on the imagination could have therapeutic value. Benjamin Franklin agreed with d’Eslon’s proposition that “If Mesmer had no other secret than that of making the imagination act to produce health, would not that be a marvelous benefit?” Astounded by the patients’ responses during the group therapy sessions, the committee wrote, “All submit to the magnetiser . . . even though they appear to be asleep, his voice, a look, a signal pulls them out of it . . . one cannot help but acknowledge the presence of a great power which moves and controls patients, and which resides in the magnetiser.”

More than 200 years later, this description of Mesmer and his treatment style have become part of the modern lexicon. Webster’s defines animal magnetism as “a magnetic charm or appeal” and mesmerise as “to subject to mesmerism, also hypnotize . . . spellbind.”

Mesmer’s theory, much like the man himself, was mystical and complex. But in an era that offered sometimes rather toxic and harsh medical treatments, and which could often be as deadly to the patient as the disease itself, Mesmer provided calming and innocuous therapy. He understood how inducing a suggestive mental state could alleviate pain or afflictions, psychosomatic or otherwise. His technique remains the basis of the modern practice of therapeutic hypnosis.


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