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Franz Anton Mesmer

Begins "animal magnetism" studies, Methods challenged in France

German physician whose theories and practices led to modern-day hypnotism.

The word "mesmerize" means to hold one's attention as though that person were in a trance. Such was the popularity of Franz Mesmer, whose unorthodox methods of treating illness were highly popular with his patients. Those methods were criticized and ultimately dismissed by his contemporaries, and he lived out his days in obscurity. Yet his initial fame was the result of his successes with patients. Mesmer did not know the concept of psychosomatic illness, but he did recognize the role the mind played in disease. His practices evolved into hypnosis, which today is recognized by many as a valid and highly effective means of treating certain conditions.

The son of a forester, Mesmer was born on May 23, 1734, in Iznang, in the German province of Swabia. He did not begin college until he was 25, and when he first enrolled at the University of Vienna he planned to study law. He soon changed his mind and instead worked toward a medical degree, which he received in 1766. It was in his doctoral dissertation that he described his theory of "animal gravitation," in which health in humans is affected by the gravitational pull of the various planets. Mesmer also believed that there was a specific though unidentifiable fluid-like substance occurring in nature that channeled this gravity.

Begins "animal magnetism" studies

Mesmer concluded that people did not need to rely on planetary gravitational pull; rather, they could manipulate their health through the use of any magnetic force. Today, some advocates of alternative medicine make use of magnets, which, worn or passed over the body, are said to restore balance or harmony and thus thwart disease. Most scientists consider this to be nothing more than quackery, and eighteenth-century Austrians were equally skeptical. Nonetheless, Mesmer attracted a considerable following and his practice became quite lucrative.

By 1775, Mesmer had revised his animal gravitation theory, renaming it "animal magnetism." He believed that magnets were not necessary after all; the passing of hands over the body were enough to create the necessary magnetic forces.

Other physicians were especially harsh toward Mesmer and his practices, and they actually tried to bring him up on charges of fraud. In addition, while there were patients who had been "cured" by Mesmer, there were many who had not been, and with the encouragement of the established medical profession they began to threaten legal action. Mesmer finally left Vienna in 1778, settling in Paris. There he found many French patients who were willing to engage in "Mesmerism." In addition to the magnetic forces, Mesmer also developed techniques to put people in trancelike states he called "crises." Mesmer believed that these crises, whose side effects included convulsion, actually acted as a means of forcing the body fluid back to its proper flow.

Methods challenged in France

Mesmer remained popular in France for several years, but the medical establishment there was no more welcoming than the Austrian doctors had been. The controversy eventually reached King Louis XVI, who in 1784 appointed a group of scientists to examine Mesmer's methods and present their conclusions. The commission included some of the leading scientific minds of the day, including Antoine Lavoisier and Dr. Joseph Guillotin. Also on the commission was an American, Benjamin Franklin. The commission, perhaps not surprisingly, concluded that Mesmer's techniques could not be backed up with scientific evidence. Mesmer's following

Franz A. Mesmer (Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

dropped off quickly after that pronouncement, and he left Paris in 1785. He stayed briefly in Versailles, then went to Switzerland, and finally returned to his native Germany.

It is interesting to note that although other scientists and physicians found fault with Mesmer's methods and theories, they did not discount the idea of mind-over matter treatment of illness. Franklin, in particular, believed that some diseases were more in the mind than in the body; he acknowledged that in those cases the power of suggestion could be enough to "cure" the disease. Also, Mesmer truly believed in his treatment, and his earnestness was no doubt the reason it took so much to discredit him. A common quack would have been discovered years earlier.

Mesmer spent his remaining years quietly. He died in Meersburg, Germany on March 5, 1815.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1982.

Daintith, John, et al. Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists. Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1994.

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1932.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists