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Liebeault, Ambroise Auguste (1823-1904)


Ambroise Auguste Liebault, a French physician and hypnotist, was born in Favières in Meurthe-et-Moselle on September 16, 1823, and died in Nancy on February 18, 1904.

Born into a large peasant family, he received a Catholic education before studying medicine in Strasburg, where he took an early interest in magnetism while still an intern. As a physician at Pont-Saint-Vincent near Nancy, he gave free treatment to any patients who agreed to be hypnotized. He then took a two-year sabbatical to write Du sommeil et des états analogues considérés surtout au point de vue de l'action du moral sur le physique (Sleep and analogous states considered mainly from the point of view of the influence of moods on physical well-being). The book was published in 1866 but went unnoticed or was considered to be outdated. In what were then the suburbs of Nancy, Liebeault set up a "clinic" (really just a sort of shed next to his house). There he used induced sleep and suggestion under hypnosis to treat working-class patients suffering from a variety of run-of-the-mill "maladies." He was a marginal physician who had abandoned the standard practices of his profession, but a professor of medicine raised him to the dignified status of a living legend, declaring him to be the founder of a school and an unhailed pioneer. Hippolyte Bernheim was converted to his views and practices in 1882. Liebeault was suddenly famous. The clinic of the "touching old doctor" (Freud, 1925d) became a mandatory stopover for French and European visitors who, like the young Freud, were interested in hypnotism and gravitated around the Nancy school.

In his 1866 book, which was republished at the end of the century, Liebeault claimed allegiance both to the early nineteenth-century French psychological current linked to magnetism (Bertrand and Noizet) and the hypnotic current (Braid and most of all Durand de Gros), which he brought together in his own synthesis. He stressed the influence of the mind on the physical (what we now call psychic and organic). Unlike Bernheim, he refused to equate hypnosis and suggestion and remained attached to the idea of a restless sleep linked to a concentration of attention. Liebeault's therapeutic originality consisted in breaking away from traditional magnetic cures in which patients conducted their own treatment and treated themselves, and promoting positive suggestion from the therapist. According to the testimony of certain visitors, Liebeault's suggestions were sometimes more in the nature of negotiations than categorical orders.

The Freudian text where it is easiest to find tracesparadoxically anonymous because no names are mentionedof the Nancy school is the popularizing article of 1890, "Psychical (or mental) treatment" (1905b). The main idea expressed in the title, as well as the leit-motif on the magic of words, probably came from Liebeault and Bernheim. More specifically, we find the echo of Du sommeil et des états analogues. The comparison of the relationship between the hypnotized person and the hypnotist with a mother feeding a child is in fact a summary of a text by Bertrand that Liebeault cites: "A mother who falls asleep beside her child's cradle, never ceases to watch over him even in her sleep; but she is watchful only for him." Significantly, Freud then speaks in French of the "rapport," a term used mainly in the vocabulary of animal magnetism to evoke the relationship between the magnetizer and the magnetized person.

Jacqueline Carroy

See also: Bernheim, Hippolyte; Hypnosis; Suggestion.


Barrucand, Dominique (1967). Histoire de l'hypnose en France. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bernheim, Hippolyte. (1903). Hypnotisme, suggestion, psychothérapie (2nd ed.). Paris: Fayard.

Carroy, Jacqueline. (1988). L'école hypnologique de Nancy. I: Liébeault, Beaunis, Liégeois et Delboeuf. II: Bernheim, Charcot et Freud, le Pays lorrain. Journal de la Société d'archéologie lorraine et du Musée historique lorrain, 2-3, 108-116, 159-166.

Cuvelier, André. (1987). Hypnose et suggestion. De Liébeault à Coué. Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy.

Delboeuf, Joseph. (1885). Le sommeil et les rêves. Paris: Félic Alcan.

. (1993). Le sommeil et les rêves et autres textes. Paris: Fayard.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905b). Psychical (or mental) treatment. SE, 7: 283-304.

. (1925d). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

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