This short essay will follow the life and work of Franz Anton Mesmer, perhaps a perfect case study in the personality type described above by William James. My intention here is first to establish that what Mesmer found was in fact a valid scientific point (placing him—somewhat awkwardly I might add—as an historically important figure in the history of medicine), and second, conclude that personal bias stood in the way of his understanding that discovery. “Although there is much to ridicule in the origins of mesmerism” wrote Sherwin B. Nuland, “its legacy must be taken very seriously—from crackpot concepts may arise useful theories and useful tools.”(2)
Mesmer was born in Iznang, Germany, in the year 1734. Very little is known about his early years. “In 1743 nine-year-old Franz Anton Mesmer entered a school run by monks to begin the studies that would prepare him for the university and ultimately the priesthood.”(3) In Bavaria, at Jesuit schools in Dillengen and Ingolstadt, he studied philosophy and theology, later renouncing the profession of priest and entering law school in Vienna. “Realizing he had no aptitude or desire for the priesthood, he refused to accept holy orders or a place in the Church,”(4) and yet left unapologetically armed with Aristotelian logic and inspired by the curious mathematics of Newton and the even curiouser theology of Leibniz. Finding that law was not his way, Mesmer entered the Vienna Medical School in 1760, working and studying for six years with perhaps the most qualified medical community in Europe at the time.
It was while studying medicine in Vienna that Mesmer developed an early theory of animal magnetism, which he later distilled and published in a dissertation written in Latin and entitled, provocatively, Idssertatio Physico-medica de Planetarum Influxu (Influence of Planets on the Human Body), an idea swelling with occult and metaphysical undercurrents so popular in 18th century Europe. Isaac Newton himself grouted the mosaic foundation of occult-science by his unrepentant study of metaphysics and alchemical processes popularized by Paracelsus and others of the western hermetic traditon. Indeed, with statements like the “most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies” [published] in the fantastic last paragraph of his Principia (1713 edition),”(5) Newton offered license, in a way, to the outlier metaphysics of Mesmer.
To understand Mesmer, or the century in which he practiced, means understanding the difficulty with which burgeoning scientists grappled with theories developed in an environment of mysticism and rational thought, and indeed the “temptation to become mystical remained strong in Germany…the homeland of Faust and Paracelsus."(6) The occult pedigree branching out of the chunky hermetic trunk (alchemy, magic, kabbalah, taort, etc) followed a number of diverging paths through the late eighteenth century. With Freemasonry gaining rise in western Europe and America, underground Rosicrucian movements claiming spiritual descent from C.R., and the early rumblings of Theosophy, the old science was proving alive and well. There were just enough pieces of the hermetic tradition floating around Europe for one skilled enough to make strategic use of them, which Mesmer convincingly did.
Finishing up his time at school, Mesmer turned to more practical issues. He found a financially gratuitous marriage and entered the circle of elites of Vienna in tow with his new spouse. For a number of years Mesmer’s world orbited around those elite circles and the medical school, making contacts and establishing himself as a physician. He worked with a number of prominent doctors in Vienna, attending wards and lectures and gaining valuable real-time experience in the art of medicine, leading him to open an in-house clinic (1767) “where besides an office and dispensary he maintained a research laboratory. Here he examined his patients, diagnosed their ailments, and prescribed remedies…most of his prescriptions, treatments, and cures were ordinary enough, nothing to alarm his patients or his colleagues.”(7)
It was during this period of relative normalcy that Franz Mesmer undertook his earliest clinical work in animal magnetism. In the case of Francisca Oesterlin, a relative and house guest of the Mesmer's, he found the state of western medicine sorely lacking when it came to understanding psychological problems, hysteria in the case of Ms. Oesterlin. “With Franzl, he stayed with the methods to hand until his patient’s inability to respond forced him to conclude that orthodox medicine was not enough. She resisted his treatments until she forced him to develop a totally new theory of the neuroses, the theory that gave rise to the first important modern school of abnormal psychology.”(8)
Mesmer used his earliest work - The Influence of Planets on the Human Body - to develop a more refined theory that included Newton’s universal fluid and other current discoveries in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He named his new theory of health and disease Animal Magnetism, and with his two Viennese patients Francisca Oesterlin and Maria Theresa (a blind pianist) Mesmer set out to prove to his medical colleagues its scientific validity. While his repeated attempts at validation found a few lone nods, for the most part the medical community in both Austria and Germany viewed his work as slipping toward a shadow world of science and magic – a sideshow.
Mesmer’s biggest problem was his repeated success. If he had been entirely unsuccessful no one would have noticed him. To Mesmer, success meant he was right, and they were wrong; “many observers who believed there was something in Mesmerism could not see what it was because Mesmer obscured their view by throwing up a smoke screen of baffling theories,”(9) like those laid out in his Propositions (the supposed proofs of Animal Magnetism), the most important of which are included in the following list.(10)
1. There exists a mutual influence between the Heavenly bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies.
2. A universally distributed and continuous fluid, which is quite without vacuum and of an incomparably rarefied nature, and which by its nature is capable of receiving, propagating and communicating all the impressions of movement, is the means of this influence.
8. The animal body sustains the alternate effects of this agent, which by insinuating itself into the substance of the nerves, effects them at once.
10. The property of the animal body which brings it under the influence of the heavenly bodies, and the reciprocal action occurring among those who are surrounded by it, shown by its analogy with the Magnet, induced me to term it Animal Magnetism.(11)
It was with these propositions that Mesmer lost the battle with the medical community in Vienna. What he was proposing was a kind of unified field theory, a panacea if you will, for medicine, through the subtle manipulation of energy. That Mesmer had figured out the first rules of psychoanalysis and hypnotism never received the attention it might have because of this persistent “smoke screen” of ideas used to justify his successes. The points in his propositions read like Blavatsky or Leibniz, dramatically proposing truths as though it was in your power to do so. This kind of inspired reasoning was more suited to the romantic—which it turns out would certainly be the case.
It is during this gestation period of mesmerism that the first cracks appear in its thin façade. In Austria, Mesmer was perhaps the closest he would ever come to objectively understanding the importance of certain techniques he used to aid the patient. With Maria Theresa he actually achieved some significant progress toward returning her eyesight when the rest of the medical community there had failed, but it never occurred to him that his long visits, his establishment of a doctor-patient relationship, his use of autosuggestion and trance, were the real cures. He read into his successes a script that didn’t belong there - autosuggesting himself into belief that the universal fluid was a real thing, and the evidence of its reality, though not physically detectable (as of yet), was observed during a mesmeric trance, and that observation of these events was itself proof of this mysterious agent, this illusive ether. It was a shaky argument, one that he never won within the medical/scientific community.
In 1778, with scientists and physicians disputing his claims, Mesmer abandoned Vienna altogether and moved to the intellectual hub of 19th century Europe, Paris. “Linking his fluid to health and promoting his theraputic salon with consummate showmanship, Mesmer converted animal magnetism into probably the most widely discussed theme in France during most of the 1780’s. In a decade during which an equally invisible fluid could raise a balloon aloft, mesmerism found easy popular acceptance.”(12) Where in Vienna he was an outcast, in Paris he was all the rage. Though the medical community if France distanced itself from Mesmer, his ideas and salons touched an anti-rationalism nerve within the Parisian elite. His tubs and rods, the glass harmonica, patients (often women) fainting on the floor in some mesmeric crisis touched on being devilishly fashionable around court but was entirely dismissed by strict rationalists and natural scientists.
Mesmer hit a nerve in France, tapped into deep-seated emotions and insecurities. His critics were vocal, and relatively unanimous within the medical community, but slowly it became apparent that “critique from the establishment fostered rather than weakened the hold of mesmerism on the popular mind.”(13) The medical community couldn’t do but watch on as France fell into the piercing eyes of the Wizard from Vienna and his cacophony of devotees, and from Mesmer’s point of view, it was a chance to play the two parts of his personality, his logic and his imagination, on the mercy of France. “Mesmer’s doctrine caught the historical currents of both intellect and emotion as they moved forward, often in conflict, from the rationality and the sentimentality of the eighteenth century…and like other visions of the period, it appealed to the heart as well as to the head. And consequently mesmerism had not only a strand of scientific but also an elaborate weave of romantic and revolutionary utopianism that contained threads from western societies inheritance of religion and magic.”(14) In a sense, Mesmer’s pseudoscience helped propell France from the enlightenment to the romantic period. Robert Darnton’s book entitled Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France documents how mesmerism was a major “mediating force in the transition from the ‘cold rationalism of the midcentury’ to a ‘more exotic intellectual diet’ marked by the yearning for the supernatural and the scientifically mysterious.”(15)
The theme developing here is obvious—science being perverted as a personal crusade, justified by prevailing superstitions and complex metaphysics. Mesmer’s first Proposition categorically states “there exists a mutual influence between the Heavenly bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies.” This is what Mesmer understood as science, as research. How do we know that heavenly bodies (sun, moon) have a mutual influence with animate bodies? The research doesn’t really say, but gallons of ink are wasted on theorizing the complexities of these interactions and to spelling out the abc’s of manipulating animal magnetism. His propositions propose and pronounce, but the facts are left wanting.
In 1802, Mesmer left France for good. The last 13 years of his life would be spent in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Constance, where he would remain for the most part forgotten. “At the time of Mesmer’s death in 1815, Mesmerism had split into three distinct varieties: scientific, occult, and political. Political Mesmerism died in the French Revolution, [while] occult Mesmerism continued, and continues, more or less unadulterated, to this day.”(16) The mystical strain of Mesmerism influenced key figures over the next century, including Mary Baker Eddy and Madame Blavatsky, the latter even writing in her most popular work Isis Unveiled that “Mesmerism is the most important branch of magic; and its phenomena are the effects of the universal agent…”(17) The third movement to spring out of Mesmer’s work was the one actually concerned with the how’s and why’s, the mechanics of the mesmeric trance. It is this legacy that impacted real science in the nineteenth century, and slowly the mesmeric trance gained wider acceptance until it was fully proved as a psychological phenomena by Hippolyte Bernheim (1888). “Burnheim shows how this [new] understanding of hypnosis makes sense of all the authentic medical cures recorded by the Mesmerists from Mesmer onward.”(18) Animal Magnetism was kicked to the curb, so to speak, and what was left was the really interesting and scientifically verifiable point – which again, Mesmer never saw because of his strongly held personal convictions.
Mesmer, for all his faults and self-induced philosophical distractions, was the first individual (in the modern age) to isolate and promote an early form of hypnotism. It is for that that historians write complex biographies of Mesmer and give some credit where it is due. He encouraged western medicine to move toward a more human way treating the mentally ill, and proved that conversation and autosuggestion are very powerful healing tools. Yes, he was a charlatan, but he was the type that sold the snake oil without completely understanding its therapeutic ingredients.
Quackery is a common theme throughout the history of science and medicine. The scientific method is continually under assault from people like Mesmer, who see the world, as William Blake convincingly wrote, through their “temperament, wanting a universe that suits it.” We may think, being modern Americans, that we are beyond all that, but even a cursory look at the “intelligent design” debate proves otherwise.
(1) James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. As cited in Jung, Carl. Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 300
(2) Nuland, Sherwin. Doctors. New York: Vintage, 1995. p. 272
(3) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 29
(4) Ibid. p. 31
(5) Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968. p. 11
(6) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 35
(7) Ibid. p. 47
(8) Ibid. p. 60
(9) Ibid. p. 104
(10) Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968. P. 177
(11) Mesmer, Anton. Mesmerism: A translation of the Original Scientific and Medical Writings of F.A. Mesmer. Los Altos: William Kaufmann, 1980. p. 67
(12) Young, James H. “Review: An Influential Pseudoscience.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 163, No. 3873 (Mar. 21, 1969), p. 1318. JSTOR online resource.
(16) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 205
(17) Ibid. p. 207
(18) Ibid. p. 214
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