Franz (originally Friedrich) Anton Mesmer

Born 1734-05-23
Died 1815-03-15

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Austrian physician, born May 23, 1734, Iznang auf der Höri, near Radolfzell, on the German side of Lake Constance; died March 15, 1815, Meersburg, Germany.

Biography of Franz (originally Friedrich) Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer was born and raised in the Swabian village of Iznang auf der Höri, near the Bodensee (Lake of Constance). His father was a forester employed by the archbishop of Konstanz; his mother the daughter of a locksmith. It was a large family, Franz Anton was the third of nine children, Catholic, and not particularly prosperous.

After preliminary studies in a local monastic school in Konstanz, Mesmer commenced the study of philosophy at the Jesuit university of Dillingen, Bavaria, changing in 1752 to theology, presumably as a scholarship student preparing for the priesthood. He continued his studies from 1753 at the University of Ingolstadt, where he soon abandoned theology. It is not known when and where he obtained his doctorate in philosophy. s

In 1759 Mesmer went to Vienna, first studying law, but then changed to medicine under Gerard van Swieten (1700-1772) and Anton de Haen (1704-1776). He received his medical doctorate on May 27, 1766 with a dissertation on the influence of the planets on the human body: Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum 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.

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 Theresia and the leadersship of Gerhard van Swieten and Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799).

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 January 16, 1768.

While a medical student at the University of Vienna, Mesmer was impressed by the writings of the Renaissance mystic physician Paracelsus (Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541) and attempted to rationalise a belief in astrological influences on human health as the result of planetary forces through a subtle, invisible fluid. It was a friend of his, the astronomist Maximilian Hell (1720-1792), a court astronomer and Jesuit priest, who used magnets in the treatment of disease, and influenced Mesmer to conduct his first attempts at healing with a steel magnet. This learned man was convinced that every body possesse a magnetic force which connects all human beings.

The immediate source of Mesmer’s fluid was Richard Mead’s (1673-1754) 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.

The modern history of hypnosis, however, begins not with a physician but with a clergyman, a catholic priest who lived at Klosters, Switzerland. Father Johann Gassner used hypnotic techniques to perform what he considered to be exorcisms. Mesmer was said to have watched a number of performances by Gassner in the early 1770's. Mesmer, unable to believe Gassner's hypothesis that patients were possessed by demons, believed that the metal crucifix held by the Father was responsible for magnetizing the patient and hence developed his ideas and explanation of the results into a theory of animal magnetism, which he first tested in 1774 by treating a 28 year old female, Franziska Osterlin.

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 body 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,», in 1775 he announced his new theory in Sendschreiben an einen auswärtigen Arzt. This work was reprinted several times.

Mesmer may have believed that he possessed "animal magnetism" and that he possessed healing forces; basing his practice on these concepts, he developed therapeutic sessions resembling séances. Mesmer at first used magnets, electrodes, and other devices to effect his cures, but, after arousing suspicion among the Viennese physicians, he preferred to utilize his hands. At the séances several patients sat around a vat of dilute sulfuric acid while holding hands or grasping iron bars protruding from the solution.

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 Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), he seems to have been acquainted with Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and saw a great deal of the Mozarts. The first production of a Mozart opera, the Bastien and Bastienne, took place in Mesmer’s garden, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) later made room for mesmerism in a scene in Cosi fan tutte.

In general, the ten years 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 travelled through Hungary, Switzerland, and Bavaria, where he was made a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciencess 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 influentual doctors.

In 1777 an 18 year old, blind, female pianist, singer, and composer Maria-Theresa von Paradies, was brought to Mesmer. Her father had close relations to the court of the empress dowager, Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, with whom the girl was a favourite. The girl had been blind since birth, but no physician had been able to find anything wrong with her eyes.

Under the hands of Mesmer mademoiselle Paradies gradually regained what she supposedly never had had. She recovered her sight after treatment by Mesmer despite the fact that she had been under the care of Europe's leading eye specialist for ten years without improvement.

From the medical world of Vienna people flocked to witness this "miracle", and Mesmer enjoyed a period of interst in and respect for his epoch-making methods. But then the patient, who had received an artists scholarship from the empress, during the therapy lost her ability to play the piano, possibly due to the inundation of visual stimuli ruining her nerves. Influenced by jealous doctors, the child's mother took her away from Mesmer's care before the cure was complete. In an emotional scene, the mother struck her child across the face because she resisted leaving Dr. Mesmer's clinic and the hysterical blindness reasserted itself.

This makes her father stage a plot. Accused of the practice of magic, Mesmer decided to leave Austria and perhaps also to leave his wife, who did not accompany him through the later episodes of his career.

The results obtained by Mesmer in his treatment of the blind pianist, seen in hindsight, was probably a result of the effect of hypnosis in psychotherapy. Mesmer's fiercest opponents in this case was doctors Anton Freiherr von Stoerck (1731-1803), life physician to the empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780) and emperor Franz I (1708-1765, reigned from 1745); and the eye specialist Joseph Barth (1745-1818).

The next and most spectacular episode began with Mesmer’s arrival in Paris in February 1778. He set up a clinic, very lucrative, 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-ancreasing throng of patients’ who testified that they had been cured of everything from paralysiss 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. His patrons, however, included Louis XVI (1754-1793) and members of the royal court.

The defenders of orthodox medicine took offense at what the public found most appealing about mesmerism - not its theory but its extravagant practixes. Instead of bleeding and applying purgatives, the mesmerists ran their fingers over their patient’s 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 magnetic baquet, a wooden «tub,» nearly five feet across, and one feet deep, filled with water, a mesmeric version of the Leyden jar. Out of this tub projected iron rods that were held by the patients. Later he "magnetised" a tree, so that patients could be healed by holding ropes hanging from its branches. The most noticeable effect of these devices was to induce a "crisis": convulsions. 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.

His prime supporter in Paris was a doctor, D'Eslon, who was to be struck off the register for his pains. In time, however, their ways were to part when D'Eslon practising independently annoyed Mesmer.

Mesmerism presented itself to the French as a «natural» medicine at a time when the French 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 sseemd able to put his invisible fluid to work. Scores of Parisianss 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 evene notarized case histories. And they produced an enormous barrage of propaganda - at least 200 books and pamphlets, more than were written on any single subject during the decade before the opening phase of the Revolution in 1789.

Thus mesmerism became a cause célébre, a movement which eventually eclipsed Mesmer himself. He limited his parts 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 (1750-1832), who produced many of the articles and letters issued in Mesmer’s name as well as his own mesmeric treatise, Considérations sue le magnetisme 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.

At this society Mesmer lectures and educated some 300 pupils, who soon were active in 40 societies all over France. Mesmer again achieved a tremendous success with the public, and with the subscription connected to his name by his pupils, he became a rich man and was at the height of his influence. In 1785 one of his pupils, in a breach of confidence, published the doctrines of Mesmer, which were to be kept a secret (Aphorismes des M. Mesmer; Paris, 1785).

The spread of the new medicine alarmed not only the old doctors but also the government, and in 1784, on the initiative of king Louis XVI, a commission of the French Academy of Sciences was established to evaluate his practice. The commission was composed of distinguished doctors and academicians, including Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), Joseph-Ignace Guillotine (1738-1814), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

The report of the commission concluded that far from being able to cure disease, Mesmer’s fluid did not exist. They termed him a deceiver and ascribed Mesmer's "healings" to the fantasy of the individual, and physicians using his method were threatened with the loss of their practice. The only member of the commission to speak for Mesmer was the famous botanist Adran Laurent de Jussieu. Another report, of the Royal Medical Society, presented the same conclusion. The report badly damaged the movement, which later dissolved into schisms and heresies. In 1785 Mesmer was forced to leave the city, leaving his followers to their quarrels. After a period of travelling through England, Austria, Germany, and Italy, he settled in Switzerland, where he spent most of the last thirty years of his life in relative seclusion.

Maybe he felt som revenge in the fact that one of the members of the commission fell victim to the invention of another. Joseph Ignace Guillotine was the principal inventor of the machine that bears his name; Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was the founder of moderne chemistry - on May 8, 1794, his became the finest head ever to fall for the guillotine.

Despite his bellicose colleagues, however, it was the French revolution that ruined Mesmer’s practice. During the revolution he lost his entire fortune and fled to England. During 1792/1793 he was in Karlsruhe, then in Wagenhausen bei Stein am Rhein and some other places in Switzerland.

In 1798 Mesmer returned to France in order to attempt to regain his fortune. In 1802 he moved to Versaille and made a settlement with the French government, which granted him a small pension. In 1803 Mesmer left France for good, first living in Meersburg am Bodensee, and then retired to Frauenfeld in Thurgau, where he, forgotten, practiced medicine in all quiet from 1807. Here he seems to have led a quiet and contented life, doing a little medicine, playing his glass harmonica, and remaining detached from the outside world.

In the meantime, however, animal magnetism was practiced as a therapy all over Germany. In 1812 professor Karl Christian Wolfart (1778-1832) from Berlin visited the lonely Mesmer at the request of the Prussian government in order to be educated in his methods. At the same time Johann Ferdinand Koreff (1783-1851) was already in Paris on a similar mission. Wolfart remained Mesmer’s staunchest supporter, and instigated the printing of Mesmer’s main work, Mesmerismus, oder System der Wechselwirkungen, . . . in Berlin in 1814. In the summer of 1813 Mesmer moved to Konstanz, one year later to the village of Riedetsweiler near Meersburg, soon moving on to Meersburg, where he died on March 5, 1815. His memorial at the beautiful cemetary of Meersburg was designed by Wolfart. He never changed his views on animal magnetism but did return to the Catholic Church from which he had lapsed for most of his life.

In 1814 the Abbe Faria suggested that the phenomena described by Mesmer were not due to animal magnetism, but actually due to suggestions. However, the popularity of Mesmer was so well established that Faria's hypothesis was soon forgotten.

In the early nineteenth century animal magnetism was in high fashion in Germany, where his system of therapeutics, mesmerism, had numerous adherents in all walks of society, and influenced both natural philosophy and Romanticism.

Although many of his learned contemporaries regarded Mesmer's practice as quackery, his theory of animal magnetism laid the foundations of modern hypnosis and suggestion therapy.

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 alle manner of ocultist and vitalisstic influences and to align him with William Maxwell, the Scottish physician, author of De Medicina Magnetica (1779), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Jean Baptiste van Helmont (1577-1644), and Paracelsus (1493-1541) - when they did not categorize him with Cagliostro. This version of his intellectual ancestry seems convinving enough, if one adds Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Richard 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».

Later groups of hypnotists, particularly the mesmeric 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 Jean-Martin Charcot, became an accepted medical practice. And finally, through Charcot’s impact on Freud, mesmerism exerted som influence on the development of psychoanalysis, another unorthodox product of the Viennese school.

One of those who embraced Mesmerism was John Elliotson (1791-1868), who was also a cinvinced follower of Franz Josef Gall (1758-1828). Elliotson advocated the doctrines of these two gentlemen in his own magazine, The Zoits, A Journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism and Their Application to human welfare.

We thank Graeme Lowther and Rick Collingwood for information submitted.

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