Franz Mesmer, the Discoverer of Animal Magnetism, 1774.
In 1774 a Viennese physician named Franz Anton Mesmer conducted an experiment from which he would develop a new theory of medicine. Mesmer had a woman drink a liquid preparation containing large amounts of iron. Mesmer then placed magnets on various parts of her body. After a short time the woman described feeling streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body. For Mesmer this was the absolute proof he needed to confirm that animal magnetism did exist. According to Mesmer’s theories, all living things had a special primal life force he called “animal magnetism”. The force originated from the stars and flowed through people, giving them life. Illness was caused by obstructions or irregular flow of animal magnetism and to restore health a physician need only restore the patients life force.
Originally Mesmer treated his patients with actual magnets. In the 18th century magnetism was a strange and largely unknown force. It is no wonder that a wide range of medicinal uses for magnetism were created at the time. According to Mesmer the power of a magnet could help restore and regulate the animal magnetism of a human. However, as he developed his theories further, Mesmer concluded that the use of magnets were unnecessary, and that the healthy animal magnetism of one person could be used to restore the unhealthy animal magnetism of another. Mesmer developed a treatment in which he sit in front of a patient with his knees touching his patient’s knees. He would hold his patients thumbs in his palms while looking directly in his patients eyes. Mesmer would then pass his hands over the patients shoulders and arms, then press his fingers on the patient’s abdomen, often for several hours at a time. During this process Mesmer would often have a musician play a glass harmonica, a type of instrument that produced a sound similar to that of rubbing a wet finger around a wine glass.
Eventually Mesmer’s treatments became so popular that he could no longer do one-on-one sessions. Instead he created a group therapy session called a “baquet”. A baquet was a large container, like a barrel. The baquet would be filled with water and would have iron rods or cables jutting out of it. The patients would hold the rods as Mesmer manipulated the water with his hands, which would apparently manipulate the collective “animal magnetism” of the group.
Mesmer’s treatments traveled far and wide, with great names such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and the Marquis de Lafeyette becoming the first mesmerists. By 1784 his theory became so popular that it garnered the attention of King Louis XVI of France. The French King put together a committee of scientists and intellectuals to study the merits Mesmer’s theories, among them the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, the physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (origin of the guillotine), and the American ambassador Benjamin Franklin. After conducting a series of experiments, the committee concluded that there was no evidence that animal magnetism existed. Modern scientists and health experts today concur with their findings.
While today Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism has been thoroughly debunked and his treatments considered strange and laughable, he has left a legacy that has become a part of our common lexicon. The next time you find yourself “mesmerized”, remember Franz Mesmer.