Franz Anton Mesmer is probably the most famous name in the entire history of hypnosis, even though he never heard of the art nor the science by that name.
As the first man ever to try to explain scientifically what Dr. Mesmer was doing, Franz Anton Mesmer is often given credit for being the “Father of Hypnosis,” a title Mesmer shares with two other men. Even today we speak of “mesmerizing” someone, and the hypnotherapy community still bears many references to Dr Mesmer and Mesmer’s work, as an undeniable tribute.
Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer was born in Iznang, Germany, on May 23, 1734, on the Bodensee, or Lake of Constance. Because this lake is also bordered by Switzerland and Austria, some publications list Franz Mesmer as being born in either of these countries, or on other dates, due to the inaccuracy of records kept at that time.
Franz Anton Mesmer first studied medicine in Vienna, where Mesmer became a practicing physician.
After seeing a demonstration on magnetic cures by Father Maximilian Hell in 1774, Mesmer began his experiments with magnets. Dr. Mesmer apparently borrowed his first magnets from Father Hell. Then, in 1766, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer wrote his Doctoral Dissertation, “De Planetarum Influxu” ” (The Planetorium Flux) in which Mesmer first formulated his theory concerning the influence of planets upon the human body. Dr. Franz Mesmer believed that a general sort of magnetic fluid pervaded nature and the human body, and that this fluid must be evenly distributed throughout the body for wellness. Mesmer postulated that our own bodies were like magnets with poles at either end – and that bringing a magnet close to the body would help balance and harmonize this magnetic fluid around us. Dr. Mesmer’s theory was first called “animal gravitation” and eventually became known as “animal magnetism.” Although Mesmer’s theories intrigued many, Mesmer also blended astrology and metaphysics into his theories – which widened the credibility gap with the skeptics.
Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer’s first subject was Franzl Oesterlin, a young girl who was a friend of Mesmer’s wife. The girl was a victim of hysteria and combined convulsions, with symptoms of vomiting, temporary blindness, attacks of paralysis, hallucinations, inability to pass urine, violent toothache and “other terrible symptoms”, to quote Mesmer. Magnets were tied to her feet and hung around her neck and “a hot piercing pain rose along her legs from her feet and ended with an intense spasm in the upper rim of the iliac bone. Here this pain was united with an equally agonizing one which flowed from both sides of the breast, shot pains up to the head and united in the roots of the hair. The patient felt a burning sensation in all her joints. At certain parts of her body the magnetic stream seemed to be interrupted, even to become more intense. She was soon insensitive to all the magnets and cured of her attacks.” The cure was permanent.
Let’s consider what happened… Magnets at that time were new and mysterious, and some believed that they had great powers. The subject respected them and was convinced that they would produce results. And because results were expected, results were produced!
Also, at that time, pain was considered necessary for healing. What the magnets did, then, through our friends belief, conviction and expectation, was to produce a quick, intense pain that did the job of beating psychological symptoms.
Before long, Mesmer discovered that magnets were not essential to the “cure” and instead came to believe that the results were due to an invisible, voluminous fluid which permeated everything and was affected by the position of the planets.
Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer soon modified his magnetism theories to include the fact that Mesmer somehow became endowed with much more “magnetic fluid” than other people – though everyone did have a certain amount.
Dr. Mesmer’s fame grew quickly, and Mesmer magnetized many; and, as is easy to believe, the other practicing physicians became furious and labeled him a quack!
But Mesmer just kept right on with his work.
Unfortunately for the evolution of hypnotism, Mesmer did not know that Mesmer’s “cures” were entirely due to Mesmer’s artistry of inducting a guided self-trance, helping patients actually use the power of their own subconscious minds for their cures – so Mesmer’s first defeat left Mesmer without a good response.
In attempting to cure a neurotic blind girl, Maria Theresa Paradies, pianist and protégé of the empress, Dr. Mesmer managed to help her restore her sight but found himself unable to explain her loss of equilibrium – which angered her parents greatly. Her father came to Mesmer’s clinic demanding Mesmer release her immediately. She begged to stay; but her father drew his blade with his demand, and she went into convulsions and lost her sight again, never to regain it, although there was nothing physically wrong with her eyes.
Mesmer’s critics naturally took advantage of this incident; and a commission was appointed to investigate. They did so – for three years – and then decided that Mesmer was a danger to Vienna and gave him only two days to leave town.
Mesmer then moved to Paris, where Mesmer invited leading scientists to witness Mesmer’s demonstrations, and encouraged the poorer classes to come to Mesmer’s clinic for treatment. The slow, discouraging responses resulted in Mesmer’s moving on to Belgium in 1781.
Mozart became a Mesmer fan, and after Mozart’s insistence, Mesmer returned to Paris and bought a hotel on the Rue Mottmarte, where Mesmer turned away from the science of magnetizing people, and became a showman practicing Mesmer’s cures as an art - causing no small stir in France.
Mesmer’s clinic itself became a showplace in Paris – where getting mesmerized became as popular as going up in hot air balloons. Mesmer developed the legendary bacquet, a monstrosity which would even be the envy of some modern showmen today! It was a round contraption, roughly a foot high, with a seating capacity of about 30. There were holes in the top where subjects could grasp the iron rods and receive the “magnetic flow” and go with the flow. Inside were numerous bottles which Mesmer had previously filled with the all-important, invisible, healing “magnetic fluid” – which, of course, flowed from one of Mesmer’s finger tips. The entire scenario was enhanced with music, unusual lightings, and the presence of highly suggestible subjects, so that even a skeptic generally found it easy to trance out into convulsions by grasping one of the iron rods. At times, Mesmer “magnetized” empty envelopes which, when opened, would produce a convulsion. Couldn’t Hollywood make this an interesting scene in a movie?
All this show business again brought Mesmer under public scorn in France – so much so that cartoons were published during his life depicting Mesmer with the face and ears of a donkey while magnetizing a woman, with the caption: “LE DOIGT MAGIQUE OU LE MAGNETISME ANIMAL.” (THE MAGIC FINGER OR ANIMAL MAGNETISM) Some cartoons were so demeaning that they depicted both Mesmer and Mesmer’s followers as dogs!
Mesmer remained in Paris this time until a commission appointed by King Louis XVI and headed by Benjamin Franklin investigated Mesmer’s work and turned in an unfavorable report. One of the experiments Franklin observed was with a woman who drank a mesmerized cup of water which she believed to be normal. Nothing happened. Yet when she drank a normal cup that she believed had been mesmerized, she tranced out! Another experiment involved trees which had been mesmerized. Again, the subject failed to trance out at the correct tree – but instead when into convulsions when touching the tree that he believed had been magnetized. Franklin stated that Mesmer was a fraud, as all Mesmer’s cures and theatrical results were caused by imagination. Any of us could have come to the same conclusion.
I wonder if Franklin had any idea that a day would come when an entire profession of hypnotherapy would rely so heavily on his correct observation!
At any rate, Mesmer unfortunately did not understand the role of imagination in Mesmer’s successes, and was forced into retirement in Switzerland, where Mesmer lived quietly and sadly, occasionally treating his neighbors until Mesmer’s death in 1815. Far before Mesmer’s death, Mesmer lost control of mesmerism, as spiritualists blended it with spiritualism.
Had either Mesmer or any other early key pioneers of hypnosis really understood the vital role of even some of the ingredients of the hypnotic formula, belief, imagination, expectation and conviction, the entire history of hypnosis would have changed course! It seems tragic that even the 19th Century pioneers failed to learn from Mesmer’s mistake. Why couldn’t they make the same correct observation made by Benjamin Franklin in the late 18th Century?
Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) German Physician
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