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Mesmer, Franz Anton

MESMER, FRANZ ANTON

(b. Iznang, Germany, 23 May 1734; d. Meersburg, Germany, 5 March 1815)

medicine, origins of hypnosis.

Mesmer was born and raised in the Swabian village of Iznang near the Lake of Constance. His father was a forester employed by the archbishop of Constance; his mother, the daughter of a locksmith; and his family, large (Franz Anton was the third of nine children), Catholic, and not particularly prosperous. 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 16 January 1768. Mesmerism therefore may have been the product of an ambitious arriviste but not of a mountebank. The man and the “ism” represent a period when medicine was attempting to assimilate advances in the physical and biological sciences and when scientists often indulged in cosmological speculations that read like science fiction today but passed as respectable varieties of Newtonianism in the eighteenth century.

After preliminary studies in a local monastic school, Mesmer spent four years at the Jesuit University of Dillingen (Bavaria), presumably as a scholarship student preparing for the priesthood. He then attended the University of Ingolstadt for a brief period and in 1759 entered the University of Vienna as a law student. Having changed to medicine and completed the standard course of studies, he received his doctorate in 1766. 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 Theresa and the leadership of Gerhard van Swieten and Jan Ingenhousz.

Mesmer later traced his theory of animal magnetism to his doctoral thesis, Dissertatio physico-medica deplanetarum 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. The immediate source of Mesmer’s fluid was Richard Mead’s 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. Mesmer associated this “animal gravitation” with health: physical soundness resulted from the “harmony” between the organs of the body and the planets—a proposition, he emphasized, that had nothing to do with the fictions of astrology.

The proposition took on new life for Mesmer when he began treating his own patients. Inspired by the experiments of Maximilian Hell, a court astronomer and Jesuit priest, who used magnets in the treatment of disease, 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 bodv 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,” he announced his new theory in Sendschreiben an einen auswärtigen Arzt … (Vienna, 1775).

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 Gluck, seems to have been acquainted with Haydn, and saw a great deal of the Mozarts. The first production of a Mozart opera, Bastien und Bastienne, took place in Mesmer’s garden, and Mozart later made room for mesmerism in a scene in Cosi fan tutte. In general, the ten 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 traveled through Hungary, Switzerland, and Bavaria, where he was made a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences 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 influential doctors. Offense developed into open hostility in 1777 during a dispute over Mesmer’s treatment of Maria-Theresa von Paradies, a celebrated blind pianist who was eventually removed from Mesmer’s care by her parents. In these circumstances Mesmer decided to leave Vienna and perhaps also to leave his wife, who did not accompany him through the later episodes of his career.

The next and most spectacular episode began with Mesmer’s arrival in Paris in February 1778. He set up a clinic 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-increasing throng of patients, who testified that thev had been cured of everything from paralysis 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. The defenders of orthodox medicine took offense at what the public found most appealing about mesmerism—not its theory but its extravagant practices. Instead of bleeding and applying purgatives, the mesmerists ran their fingers over their patients” 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 “tub,” a mesmeric version of the Leyden jar, which stored fluid and dispensed it through iron bars that patients applied to their sick areas. Mesmer transmitted his invisible fluid through all sorts of media—ropes, trees, “chains” of patients holding hands—and he usually sent it coursing through the air by gestures with his hands. 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.

Mesmerism presented itself to the French as a “natural” medicine at a time when the 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 seemed able to put his invisible fluid to work. Scores of Parisians 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 even notarized case histories. And they produced an enormous barrage of propaganda—at least 200 books and pamphlets, more than were written on any other single subject during the decade before the opening phase of the Revolution in 1787.

Thus mesmerism became a cause célèbre, a movement, which eventually even eclipsed Mesmer himself. He limited his part 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, who produced many of the articles and letters issued in Mesmer’s name as well as his own mesmeric treatise, Considérations sur le magnétisme 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. The spread of the new medicine alarmed not only the old doctors but also the government. A royal commission composed of distinguished doctors and academicians, including Bailly, Lavoisier, and Franklin, reported in 1784 that, far from being able to cure disease, Mesmer’s fluid did not exist. The report badly damaged the movement, which later dissolved into schisms and heresies. Mesmer finally left his followers to their quarrels and, after a period of traveling through England, Austria, Germany, and Italy, settled in Switzerland, where he spent most of the last thirty years of his life in relative seclusion.

Considered as a movement, mesmerism suggests some of the varieties of pre-Romanticism and popular science in the late eighteenth century. It did not spend itself as an intellectual force for almost a hundred years, as the mesmerist passages in the works of Holfmann, Hugo, and Poe testify. But 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 all manner of occultist and vitalistic influences and to align him with William Maxwell, the Scottish physician, author of De Medicina Magnetica (1769), Robert Fludd, J. B. van Helmont, and Paracelsus—when they did not categorize him with Cagliostro. This version of his intellectual ancestry seems convincing enough, if oneadds Newton and 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 deepest “secrets.”

In terms of the development of medicine, the techniques of mesmerizing proved more influential than its theory. By concentrating on the “rapport” of patient and doctor, Mesmer seems to have dealt effectively with nervous disorders. He certainly had, to put it mildly, a forceful bedside manner; and in 1784 his followers, led by the Chastenet de Puységur brothers, extended mesmeric “rapport” into something new: mesmerieally induced hypnosis. Later groups of hypnotists, particularly in the mesmerist 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 J. M. Charcot, became an accepted medical practice. And finally, through Charcot’s impact on Freud, mesmerism exerted some influence on the development of psychoanalysis, another unorthodox product of the Viennese school.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Mesmer’s own works contain only a sketchy version of his system. The most important are Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum influxu (Vienna, 1766); Schreiben über die Magnetkur (n.p., 1766); Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal (Geneva, 1779); Précis historique des faits relatifs au magnétisme animal (London, 1781); and Mesmerismus oder System der Wechselwirkungen, Theorie und Anwendung des thierischen Magnetismus als die allgemeine Heilkunde zur Erhaltung des Menschen, K. C. Wolfart, ed. (Berlin, 1814). There are some unpublished letters by Mesmer and his followers in the Bibliothéque Nationale, fonds francais, 1690.

II. Secondary Literature. For a thorough but incomplete bibliography of early works on Mesmer and mesmerism, see Alexis Dureau, Notes bibliographiques pour servir à l’histoire du magnétisme animal (Paris, 1869). Most of the important source material is contained in the fourteen enormous volumes of the mesmerist collection in the Bibliothéque Nationals, 4° Tb 62.1.

Biographies of Mesmer tend to treat him as a forgotten pioneer of hypnosis and Freudianism: Margaret Goldsmith, Franz Anton Mesmer: The History of an Idea (London, 1934); E. V. M. Louis, Les origines de la doctrine du magnétisme animal: Mesmer et la Société de l’harmonie (Paris, 1898); Rudolf Tischner, Franz Anton Mesmer, Leben, Werk und Wirkungen (Munich, 1928); Jean Vinchon, Mesmer et son secret (Paris, 1936); and Stefan Zweig, Mental Healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud (London, 1933).

For a more scholarly treatment of aspects of Mesmer’s life and thought, see R. Lenoir, “Le mesmérisme et le systè du monde,” in Revue d’histoire de la philosophie, 1 (1927), 192–219, 294–321; Bernhard Milt, Franz Anton Mesmer und Seine Beziehungen zur Schweiz: Magie und Heilkunde zu Lavaters Zeit (Zurich, 1953); and Frank Pattie, “Mesmer’s Medical Dissertation and Its Debt to Mead’s De Imperio Solis ac Lunae,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 11 (1956), 275–287.

Works concentrating on mesmerism as a movement rather than as a philosophy are Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); and Louis Figuier, Histoire du merveilleux dans les temps modernes, 2nd ed., III (Paris, 1860).

Robert Darnton

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Mesmer, Franz Anton

Mesmer, Franz Anton

Universal fluid and animal magnetism

Mesmerism

Charges of malpractice

Assessment

WORKS BY MESMER

WORKS ABOUT MESMER

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was the originator of the doctrine of animal magnetism, later called mesmerism. Son of a gamekeeper on the estate of a bishop, Mesmer studied divinity first at Dillingen and then at Ingolstadt, where he acquired the degree of doctor of philosophy. He next went to Vienna to study law, and there he appears to have obtained a second doctoral degree. He received his third and final doctoral degree, in medicine, in 1766. Having become by then a man of independent means, Mesmer for a time followed his inclination to be a dilettante in a variety of scientific fields and was especially active as a patron of the musical arts. Himself a versatile musician, he was a friend of Gluck and a patron of young Mozart.

What evidence there is shows Mesmer to have been a sensitive, sincere, well-educated man, of superior intelligence and possessed of an inquisitive and intuitive spirit, of imagination and enthusiasm, and of a genuine love for his fellow men. Granted that he may have had unduly strong and erroneous convictions, that he may have been somewhat mystical and at times flamboyant, there is nevertheless little basis for believing that he was ever a charlatan or a quack.

Universal fluid and animal magnetism

The origins of Mesmer’s notions of animal magnetism are often said to go back to his 1766 doctoral thesis in medicine, “De planetarum influxu,” which was concerned with the influence of the planets on the human body. In it he attempted to apply the writings of Newton and Descartes to older ideas, pro-pounded by such men as van Helmont, Paracelsus, and Wirtig. His thesis was that there is a universal fluid permeating all things; it is in a perpetual state of flux and reflux and serves as a medium through which all coexisting objects continuously interact. In particular, it is through this fluid that the planets influence human beings. As might be expected, Mesmer did have something to say in his thesis with regard to the medical aspects of this influence, but he did not then appear to have developed the notion of “animal magnetism.” During the summer of 1774, however, he was given an opportunity to witness a remarkable cure effected through the application of magnets. Intrigued, he himself began to experiment on a few patients, with some remarkable successes. In his efforts to find the true basis of these cures, whose source, he hypothesized, must lie in something other than the scientifically known physical properties of mag-nets, he returned to some of his earlier ideas about the universal fluid. Strongly impressed by the success of Johann Gassner, a popular healer of the day, in obtaining cures solely through the touch of the hands, Mesmer arrived at the notion that the universal fluid manifests itself in living organisms, particularly man, in a way quite analogous to the manner in which physical magnetism manifests itself in natural magnets. According to this analogy, there are like and unlike animal magnetic poles, which can be transmitted (or induced), changed, destroyed, and reinforced. Health depends upon a proper distribution and balance of such poles or, in other words, upon a proper distribution or concentration of the vital fluid. Mesmer attributed to physical magnets powerful animal magnetic properties, parallel to their physical properties, which enable them to affect the distribution of animal magnetism in other objects, particularly human beings. Moreover, he believed that some human beings are like physical magnets, in that they are powerful sources of animal magnetism, and can influence objects and humans. Since illness is the result of an inadequate distribution or a lack of animal magnetism, a cure can be produced by altering the inadequate distribution through use of a powerful source of animal magnetism. This, in essence, is the doctrine of animal magnetism as Mesmer propounded and applied it.

Mesmerism

However, in the hands of Mesmer’s students and their students, at least three elements soon entered into the picture to distort the doctrine into “mesmerism.” It is difficult to tell whether these were independent factors or whether each one followed more or less as a consequence of preceding ones. In any event, a critical departure was the discovery of ‘artificial somnambulism/’ a rather spectacular “nervous” condition that was presumably brought about by the use of animal magnetism and that produced in many individuals all sorts of unusual and often paranormal faculties. Another change was the increasing tendency to equate animal magnetism with the universal fluid discussed in Mesmer’s thesis, rather than to consider it only one manifestation of that fluid. Last, animal magnetism became increasingly associated with various physical and paraphysical forces, so that, for instance, it was used to explain table tilting and turning during spiritualistic séances. In fact, in the hands of the mesmerists animal magnetism became a multifaceted biophysical entity which could account for just about anything. For Mesmer, animal magnetism was and remained a bio-physical agency belonging to the Newtonian scheme of things, of interest primarily as a way to under-stand illnesses and a way to cure them rationally. For the mesmerists, animal magnetism became an occult agent, used primarily to bring about the somnambulistic state and other spectacular and extramedical effects. Mesmer himself noted this unfortunate development during the course of his life but was unable to stem its progress.

Charges of malpractice

Mesmer’s successful but unconventional use of magnets was unacceptable to the relatively small and select group of practicing Viennese physicians, and in 1778 he was forced to leave Vienna, following what now appear to have been poorly founded accusations of mal-practice. From Vienna he moved to Paris, where he enjoyed great popularity as a practitioner for several years but again met with increasing op-position and hostility on the part of the medical profession, which labeled him an impostor and a charlatan. The final blow was dealt Mesmer when, in 1784, a commission, of which Benjamin Franklin was a member, was appointed by the French government to investigate Mesmer’s claims and concluded that animal magnetism did not exist. The commission did recognize that Mesmer had effected numerous cures, but it preferred to ascribe them to as yet unknown physiological causes. It is worth noting that the commission itself never directly accused Mesmer of charlatanism; this accusation came from less well-informed professional men of his time. Forced to leave Paris by the attacks of the medical profession, Mesmer moved to Switzerland, where he lived out the remainder of his days as a medical doctor.

Assessment

Today we know, of course, that Mesmer’s animal magnetism is not a scientifically valid concept; but in the light of what constituted science, especially medical science, in his day, it probably seemed to have some validity. We cannot overlook the fact that Mesmer did observe the apparent cure of illnesses by some unknown principle or agent. He tried to find an explanation for these cures that was compatible with the best general scientific writings of his time, such as those of Descartes and Newton.

Seen in retrospect, Mesmer appears more a some-what tragic figure—a product and a victim of his time—than a villain. He lived in an era of widespread superstitition, gullibility, and relative ignorance even among the upper classes, and of complete illiteracy among the common people. Black magic was still a thing to be feared, and wise men spoke seriously of the influence of the planets, advocated the intensive use of leeching, bleeding, and poultices as quasi-universal remedies, and talked learnedly of the circulation of the phlegm. Yet, significant strides were being made in the direction of modern science: Newton died just before Mesmer was born, and such men as Lavoisier, Gay-Lussac, Gauss, and Ampere were Mesmer’s contemporaries. Most unfortunately for Mesmer, however, the comte de Saint Germain and Cagliostro also were his contemporaries. These charlatans succeeded in linking their names to the practice of mesmerism, thus bringing it into their own suspect orbit of intrigue and infamy. Finally, rather unwisely, Mesmer left much of the conduct of his affairs in the hands of students and friends who, however well-meaning they were, may have done him more harm than good through their over-enthusiasm and personal inadequacies.

AndrÉ M. Weitzenhoffer

[See alsoHypnosis.]

WORKS BY MESMER

(1779) 1957 Memoir of F. A. Mesmer, Doctor of Medicine, on His Discoveries: 1799. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Eden. → First published as Memoire sur la decouverte du magnetisme animal.

1781 Précis historique des faits relatifs au magnetisme-animal jusques en avril 1781. London.

WORKS ABOUT MESMER

Bertrand, Alexandre 1826 Du magnétisme animal en France et des jugements qu’en ont portés les sociétés savantes ... Paris: Baillière.

Goldsmith, Margaret L. 1934 Franz Anton Mesmer: A History of Mesmerism. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Zweig, Stefan (1931) 1932 Mental Healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud. New York: Viking. → First published as Die Heilung durch den Geist: Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Freud.

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Mesmer, Franz Anton

Franz Anton Mesmer

1734-1815
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

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.

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Mesmer, Franz Anton (1734–1815)

MESMER, FRANZ ANTON (17341815)

MESMER, FRANZ ANTON (17341815), German physician. Mesmer was born in the village of Iznang in Swabia (a region in southwest Germany) to Catholic parents. His father worked for the archbishop of Constance and his mother was a locksmith's daughter. As a youth Mesmer attended a local monastic school. He later studied at the Jesuit University of Dillengen in Bavaria and the University of Ingolstadt before entering the University of Vienna in 1759. He was awarded the M.D. degree in 1766, with a doctoral thesis entitled Dissertatio Physico-medica de Planetarium Influxu (Physical-medical dissertation on the influence of the planets). Influenced by the English physician Richard Mead (16731754), Mesmer asserted the existence of "animal magnetism," a subtle fluid that permeated the cosmos and whose balance or imbalance in the human body was a primary determinant of health or disease. Using magnets and other means, he thought he could manipulate the flow of animal magnetism and relieve the "obstructions" he believed responsible for diverse ills.

In 1768 Mesmer married a wealthy widow, Maria Anna von Posch, whose financial support enabled him to establish a successful medical practice in Vienna. A music lover, he entertained leading musicians, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791) and Franz Joseph Haydn (17321809). (Mozart included mesmerist elements in his opera Così fan tutte. ) Named a member of the Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1775, he aroused the antipathy of his fellow physicians in Vienna with his elaborately staged and publicized cures.

In 1778 Mesmer left Vienna for Paris, where his commanding personality and unorthodox therapeutic practices earned him notoriety. His therapy came to focus on assembling patients around a tub filled with magnetic fluid that was transmitted to their bodies through movable iron rods and their own interlaced thumbs and fingers. Dressed in a lilac robe or similar extravagant attire, Mesmer himself facilitated the flow of fluid with motions of his eyes and hands or by playing a glass harmonica, an instrument said to be of his invention. Cures were complete when a "crisis," often accompanied by convulsions, restored the harmony of the body with cosmic influences. With these techniques he gained special acclaim for curing the nervous disorder known as the "vapors."

Although lionized by the public, Mesmer ran afoul of medical and scientific authority. In 1784 a royal commission of eminent scientists judged his claim to have discovered a new physical fluid unfounded. He then left France and traveled widely before settling in Switzerland and withdrawing from public life. He died in Meersburg, Swabia, in 1815.

To spread Mesmer's ideas and practices, his disciples founded the Society of Universal Harmony in Paris with affiliates throughout the country. Especially notable were the activities of a wealthy aristocrat, A. M. J. de Chastenet de Puységur, who developed the healing technique known as "magnetic sleep" or "mesmeric somnambulism," later termed "hypnosis." Animal magnetism and somnambulism were the subjects of a voluminous literature well into the nineteenth century.

Sometimes dismissed as a charlatan, Mesmer has also been credited with anticipating the insights of depth psychology and exerting long-term influence on the development of dynamic psychiatry.

See also Anatomy and Physiology ; Astrology ; Medicine ; Music ; Psychology .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Influential study that portrays Mesmer as a charlatan and enemy of Enlightenment science.

Ellenberger, Henri. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York, 1970. Sympathetic portrait of Mesmer as a precursor of Sigmund Freud.

Walmsley, D. M. Anton Mesmer. London, 1967. A standard biography.

Elizabeth A. Williams

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Franz Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer

The German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) developed a healing technique called mesmerism that is the historical antecedent of hypnosis.

Franz Mesmer was born on May 23, 1734, in the village of Itznang, Switzerland. At age 15 he entered the Jesuit College at Dillingen in Bavaria, and from there he went in 1752 to the University of Ingolstadt, where he studied philosophy, theology, music, and mathematics. Eventually he decided on a medical career. In 1759 he entered the University of Vienna, receiving a medical degree in 1766.

Mesmer then settled in Vienna and began to develop his concept of an invisible fluid in the body that affected health. At first he used magnets to manipulate this fluid but gradually came to believe these were unnecessary, that, in fact, anything he touched became magnetized and that a health-giving fluid emanated from his own body. Mesmer believed a rapport with his patients was essential for cure and achieved it with diverse trappings. His treatment rooms were heavily draped, music was played, and Mesmer appeared in long, violet robes.

Mesmer's methods were frowned upon by the medical establishment in Vienna, so in 1778 he moved to Paris, hoping for a better reception for his ideas. In France he achieved overwhelming popularity, except among physicians. On the basis of medical opinion, repeated efforts were made by the French government to discredit Mesmer. At a time of political turmoil and revolution, such efforts were viewed as attempts to prevent the majority's enjoyment of health, and the popularity of mesmerism continued unabated. However, under continued pressure Mesmer retired to Switzerland at the beginning of the French Revolution, where he spent the remaining years of his life.

Critics focused attention of Mesmer's methods and insisted that cures existed only in the patient's mind. The 19th-century studies of Mesmer's work by James Braid and others in England demonstrated that the important aspect of Mesmer's treatment was the patient's reaction. Braid introduced the term "hypnotism" and insisted that hypnotic phenomena were essentially physiological and not associated with a fluid. Still later studies in France by A. A. Liebeault and Hippolyte Bernheim attributed hypnotic phenomena to psychological forces, particularly suggestion. While undergoing this scientific transformation in the 19th century, mesmerism, in other quarters, became more closely associated with occultism, spiritualism, and faith healing, providing in the last instance the basis for Christian Science.

Further Reading

A standard history of mesmerism with biographical details is Margaret Goldsmith, Franz Anton Mesmer: A History of Mesmerism (1934). A definitive study of mesmerism and its relation to faith healing and the rise of Christian Science is Frank Podmore, Mesmerism and Christian Science (1909; repr. as From Mesmer to Christian Science: A Short History of Mental Healing, 1964). Also useful is Stefan Zweig, Mental Healers (trans. 1932).

Additional Sources

Buranelli, Vincent, The wizard from Vienna, London: Owen, 1976.

Wyckoff, James, Franz Anton Mesmer: between God and Devil, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. □

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Mesmer, Franz Anton (1733-1815)

Mesmer, Franz Anton (1733-1815)

Famous Austrian doctor and originator of the technique that bore his name, Mesmerism, forerunner of hypnotism. He was born at Weil, near Constance, May 23, 1733. In 1766 he took a degree in medicine at Vienna, the subject of his inaugural thesis being De planetarum Influxu (De l'influence des Planettes sur le corps humain). Mesmer identified the influence of the planets with magnetism and developed the idea that stroking diseased bodies with magnets would be curative. On seeing the remarkable cures of J. J. Gassner in Switzerland, he concluded that magnetic force must also reside in the human body, and thereupon Mesmer dispensed with magnets.

In 1778 he went to Paris where he was very favorably receivedby the public, that is; the medical authorities there, as elsewhere, refused to countenance him. His curative technique was to seat his patients around a large circular vat, or baquet, in which various substances were mixed. Each patient held one end of an iron rod, the other end of which was in the baquet. In due time the crisis ensued. Violent convulsions, cries, laughter, and various physical symptoms followed, these being in turn superseded by lethargy. Many claimed to have been healed by this method.

In 1784 the government appointed a commission of members of the Faculty of Medicine, the Societé Royale de Médecine, and the Academy of Sciences, the commissioners from the latter body including Benjamin Franklin, astronomer Jean Syl-vain Bailly, and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. The committee reported that there was no such thing as animal magnetism, and referred the facts of the crisis to the imagination of the patient. This had the effect of quenching public interest in mesmerism, as animal magnetism was called at the time. Mesmer's ideas were kept alive by a few of his students and reemerged in force during the next century. Mesmer lived quietly for the rest of his life and died at Meersburg, Switzerland, March 5, 1815.

Sources:

Eden, Jerome, trans. Memoir of F. A. Mesmer, Doctor of Medicine, on His Discoveries, 1799. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Eden Press, 1957.

Goldsmith, Margaret L. Franz Anton Mesmer: The History of an Idea. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1934. Reprint, London: Arthur Barker, 1934.

Wyckoff, James. Franz Anton Mesmer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Wydenbruck, Nora. Doctor Mesmer. London: John Westhouse, 1947.

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Mesmer, Friedrich Anton

Friedrich Anton Mesmer (frē´drĬkh än´tôn mĕs´mər), or Franz Anton Mesmer (fränts), 1734–1815, German physician. He studied in Vienna. His interest in "animal magnetism" developed into a system of treatment through hypnotism that was called mesmerism. It seems now that Mesmer was actually treating psychosomatic illness, but an unsympathetic medical and scientific community caused him to be expelled first from Vienna, and in 1778 from Paris. He retired to his native Austria and to obscurity.

See his memoir (1799, tr. 1957); biography by D. M. Walmsley (1967).

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Mesmer, Franz

Mesmer, Franz Friedrich Anton) (1734–1815) Austrian physician. Mesmer's interest in ‘animal magnetism’ led to his development of mesmerism (hypnosis) as a therapeutic treatment. Ridiculed by fellow scientists, Mesmer died in obscurity.

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