Medicine of Interactions – What Modern Medicine could learn from its Historical Encounter with Animal Magnetism (Franz Anton Mesmer 1734 – 1815)


“… that God gave the power of sight to the human mindlessness, it serves as a sufficient proof that no one exercises the God-inspired and true power of sight with deliberation, but either,
by sleep captivating the power of his thought, or by virtue of a fever,
or a transformation effected by rapture.”

Plato, Timaeus quoted in M.R. Roda 1990

Whoever deals with the person, work, and history of Franz Anton Mesmer is confronted with the difficulty of facing a personality whose many facets make it difficult to force him into a uniform image. Mesmer seems to evade this attempt to grasp him light-footed, like one of his much-vaunted fluids.

Franz Anton Mesmer gave impulses for the most diverse disciplines and topoi. Examples are the development of anesthesia, psychiatry, psychosomatics, hypnotism, and psychotherapy. For the sociological formation of the latter, his unintended influence should not be underestimated. Beyond that, however, his teachings had an effect in parapsychology, spiritualism, which returned to Europe via America, spiritual healing, stage hypnosis, and in an extensive way in the history of literature, especially German Romanticism.

But Mesmer was also a radical democratic politician who, among other things, proposed a republican constitution for Switzerland, which, with Napoleon’s help, was in the process of breaking away from outmoded feudalistic structures. His Mesmerist movement included such illustrious names as Lafayette and Brissot in Paris before the overthrow of 1789.

Mesmer’s doctrine would also have to be considered under the culturally historical and philosophically interesting dichotomy of consciousness and nature being (Cho 1987), which is not possible within the framework of this paper.

Thus, the following questions, in particular, will be explored:

  • What was the nature of the philosophical-medical system that Franz Anton Mesmer created and developed during his life? (Mesmer’s theory of treatment)
  • How did Mesmer treat his patients, and how did his direct students and successors do so? (Mesmer’s method of treatment)
  • How is Mesmer’s role in the process called ‘medical enlightenment’ to be assessed? (Was Mesmer an ‘enlightener or a reactionary’?).

To answer these questions, it seems first necessary to trace Mesmer’s biography (chapter 1). His unsteady European life also answers some of the questions that arise, for example, about Mesmer’s role as a political contemporary. This political-cultural aspect, in turn, was of decisive importance for the reception of Mesmerism.

In chapter 2.1. Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism is explained, followed by the attempt to trace what happened in a ‘magnetic cur’ (chapter 2.2).

Chapter 3 discusses whether Mesmer should be considered an enlightener. Chapter 4 concludes with a discussion of some of the consequences of Mesmer’s system and actions in the history of medicine.

1. The emergence of Mesmerism: a European vita

“Now, who was this man who, according to Schopenhauer’s certainly exaggerated judgment, accomplished the “most substantial of all discoveries ever made” (1851)?”
cited in Florey 1988

Until a few years ago, Franz Anton Mesmer was known only to a circle of people interested in medical history and to those who traced the history of psychotherapy and hypnotism (compare Florey 1995; Ellenberger 1996). Since the middle of the seventies, i.e., with the publication of Ellenberger’s monumental work on the ‘Discovery of the Unconscious’ (op. cit.), a growing number of publications on Mesmer’s life, work, and history of his work can be observed.

Franz Anton Mesmer 1734 – 1815

Franz Anton Mesmer 1734 – 1815

To trace Mesmer’s biographical career means to show him as a cosmopolitan of the 18th century who had high social connections, as a member of venerable institutions such as the Viennese Faculty and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and as a new founder of illustrious secret societies such as the Sociétés de l’Harmonie. But Mesmer was also a musician and author of political treatises.

Franz Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in Iznang am Bodensee, a small village near Radolfszell on Lake Constance. He was the third of a total of eight children. His father Anton was in the service of the prince-bishop of Constance as a prince-bishop’s venator (hunting warden); he was born in 1701 in what is now the Wollmatingen district of Constance.

After attending the local village school and music and Latin lessons with Franciscan monks, the Mesmer family moved to Ittendorf, and Franz Anton attended the Jesuit College in Constance. In 1752 his admission to the Gymnasium Dillingen and in 1754, the beginning of theological studies at the Jesuit University there are documented – both as scholarship holders of the prince-bishop. The diocese of Constance was of considerable size at that time, extending beyond Freiburg, while the principality as a state in its own right was only tiny in scope.

Mesmer was already familiarized with basic natural science and humanities writings of that time because although he was expected to follow the path of the theologian, Dillingen University was famous for its natural science library. It has been proved that Mesmer at that time had at least the chance to acquire fundamental knowledge of his time about (physical) magnetism as well as to study the works of Athanasius Kirchherr (1601 – 1680), one of the last great ‘polymaths,’ in whose writings one can also read about the compelling forces of magnetism. Not only this: the Jesuit Kirchherr can be considered as the inventor of the concept of animal magnetism. Thus in his book Magnes sive de arte magnetica of 1643, a section is titled De Magnetismo Animalium (Florey 1995, p. 24).

On November 3, 1754, Mesmer’s enrollment at the Bavarian State University of Ingolstadt is documented. After studying theology and canon law in his first year, Mesmer now changed his field of study. The physician Karl Christian Wolfart (1778 -1832), who published Mesmer’s Alterwerk in 1814, reports how Mesmer told him that he had studied law, mathematics, physics, and the ‘older languages’ at that time. Not proven, but often assumed, is a doctorate of Mesmer to the Dr. phil. in that Ingoldstadt time.

In 1759 Mesmer moved to Vienna and began to study medicine. Still supported by his patron, the Prince-Bishop of Constance, Mesmer succeeded in making the acquaintance of outstanding physicians of the time in Vienna. Among his teachers and personal acquaintances were the Boerhaave students Gerhard van Swieten (1700 – 1772) and Anton de Haen (1704 – 1776), both representatives of the ‘Viennese School’ of the 18th century, as well as Anton von Stoerck (1731 – 1803). Mesmer’s brother Josef Conrad moved to the Austrian metropolis at the same time as Mesmer. He became the writing teacher of Maria Antonia, who was to play a decisive role in Mesmer’s biography as the later French queen Marie Antoinette. (Florey 1995, p. 29).

After Mesmer received his doctorate in 1766, he was already given a seat and a vote in the Vienna medical faculty on October 19, 1767. His dissertation with the unusual, but at that time quite popular topic ‘De planetarum influxu’ will be discussed in chapter 2.

By marrying into the Viennese bourgeoisie in 1768, Mesmer was relieved of all financial worries and could henceforth afford a respectable house with a practice and a small hospital, a laboratory, and numerous social receptions. Much has been reported about Mesmer’s acquaintance with the Mozart family. Among other things, Mesmer commissioned Wolfgang Amadeus’s first opera ‘Bastien und Bastienne,’ which was first performed in the garden of his house. (Florey 1995, p. 52). Still in Mozart’s ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ the words sounded at the premiere 22 years later: “the magnetic stone shall prove it to you, it once needed, who took his origin from Teutschlands Gauen and became so famous in Francia.” (Florey 1995, p. 52). It was Leopold Mozart who may be considered a trustworthy reference for Mesmer’s own musical abilities: besides the bassoon, the clarinet, and the cello, it was the glass harmonica that Mesmer was particularly interested in, whose playing skills he developed to the point of mastery and which he used in later years for treatment purposes. This instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) and brought to Europe by the Englishwoman Marianne Davis (1744 – 1792), with its glass discs rotating on a spool, produced an ethereal sound that excited the minds of the listeners unparalleled and probably contributed significantly to the effects that Mesmer attributed to the flow of the fluid (Florey 1988).

In 1773 something extraordinary happened in Mesmer’s practice: After he had treated conventionally, i.e., humoral medicine, for about eight years, he met a young woman who was to become his “model patient” from then on. (Ellenberger 1996, p. 96). At that time, it had just become known that some English doctors treated their patients with magnets, and Mesmer experimented. He first had the idea to create an ‘artificial high water’ in his patient. She soon felt the effects of unusual currents in her body, whereupon all her complaints – Mesmer lists no less than 15 symptoms – disappeared for a few hours. Finally, in July 1774, Mesmer realized that these effects could not possibly be due to the magnet alone and to an ‘essentially different agent.’ The theory of animal magnetism was born (Florey 1995; Ellenberger 1996, p. 97). Mesmer himself describes this discovery with an inspirational pathos, not unusual for the age (Blankenburg 1985, p. 68 f.), which illuminates his dogmatic attitude later.

Mesmer’s discovery sparked a public controversy of significant proportions in Vienna in 1774 -1777. His Viennese faculty colleagues, who were in the process of discovering and introducing natural scientific medicine, saw his concept and the substantial influx of Mesmer’s practice as a threat or simply ‘scientific nonsense.’ Likewise, rivalries between Mesmer and his academic colleagues, as well as the personal weaknesses of his opponents, played a significant role, which Mesmer did not tire of denigrating in his writings (compare Mesmer 1985 – nach der Ausgabe von 1781, p. 28 ff.). During this period, Mesmer broke with, among others, the well-known astronomer and physicist Maximillian Hell, the member of the Viennese medical faculty Anton von Stoerck, and Jan Ingenhousz, the discoverer of photosynthesis (Florey 1995, p. 76). The question of why Mesmer should be a danger for the academic medicine of the 18th century will be tried to be answered in chapters 3 and 4.

On a journey in 1774, which was interesting from the point of view of medicine and religious history, Mesmer successfully promoted his concept of ‘animal magnetism’ as a new, reasonable and scientific explanation of the ‘miracles’ of one of the most famous men of his time. The Catholic Father Johann Joseph Gassner (1727 – 1779) was one of the last great exorcists of his time. From July to August of 1774 alone, Gassner had treated 1340 people in the Lake Constance monastery of Salem by exorcism. An episcopal commission confirmed 375 healings, and a daily newspaper wrote: “Good night, gentlemen Doctores, if now only exorcism can cure!” (Florey 1995, p. 86). Mesmer traveled after Gassner, repeating some of his spectacular cures – but in contrast to the latter, he provided a more modern explanation with his theory of animal magnetism, which seemed to be more in line with the belief in reason of the time. Mesmers presented his theories about Gassner’s cures (and his own) to the Elector in Munich, was promptly asked to prepare an expert opinion, and explained to him and to members of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences that Gassner’s cures were not at all due to supernatural forces but to the (involuntary) use of ‘animal magnetism.’ He convinced, was made a member of the Academy in recognition of his achievements, and brought about a ban on exorcism for the entire Roman Empire of the German Nation issued by Emperor Joseph II. And Pope Pius VI subsequently placed Gassner’s writings on the ecclesiastical index.

In 1776 Mesmer had a second critical model patient in Vienna, the blind pianist Maria Theresia Paradis, who was protected by the Viennese imperial court, a young woman who in her eighteen years of life had been treated by the most respected physicians in Vienna and, among other things, had already been electrified about 3000 times – one of the fashionable therapies of the time (Ellenberger 1996, p. 99). Credibly and documented by several sources, including her father, Mesmer temporarily cured her of blindness that had existed since the age of four. However, the treatment failed in the long run, Paradis became blind again, and Mesmer’s reputation reached a low point.

In 1777 Franz Anton Mesmer left for the French capital with a letter of recommendation from Prince Kaunitz, who later became chancellor of state and foreign minister, to Count Mercy d’Argenteau, the Austrian envoy in Paris. He leaves behind an ardent following, a rejecting, partly mocking but also envious academic medical community, and his wife in Vienna.

Already in the first months of 1778, Mesmer met doctors, scholars, and influential people from many walks of life in Paris. He opens a practice in the most spacious premises (after two moves from the fall of the year in the Hôtel Bullion.) His popularity is enormous; he treats the rich and poor and introduces some revolutionary innovations: among other things, he practices the new concept of group therapy, his treatments are highly ceremonial, and music plays an essential role. The patients come to him: still an innovation in those times (Florey 1995, p. 111). From 1781, due to incredible demand, he performs the treatment on the ‘Baquet,’ a kind of wooden charm with iron rods, through which the magnetic fluid should flow.

After disputes with the Parisian medical professionals and students who wanted to treat independently, Mesmer founded the Société de l’ Harmonie in 1781, a kind of secret lodge whose purpose was to educate, pass on and at the same time withhold knowledge from a non-paying medical public. Robert Darnton has shown that these sociétés were also a gathering place for radical political forces and the starting point for revolutionary activities before and at the beginning of the French Revolution. (1986). Mesmer had left Paris from 1781 to 1784, mainly in Spa, Belgium, as a means of exerting pressure on influential forces in the French state. (Florey 1995, p. 153). This ‘state,’ in the center of the court around queen Marie-Antoinette, had felt forced to ‘stay negotiations,’ in the course of which Mesmer was offered 20 000 Livres annual salary and additionally 10 000 livres for the rent of a practice. (a.a.O.1995, p. 144).

In 1784, Mesmer reached both the goal and the end of his efforts to gain academic recognition: two high-ranking commissions, members of the Paris Academy of Sciences (among them the chemist A. L. Lavoisier, the astronomer Bailly and Benjamin Franklin) and representatives of the medical profession (among them the inventor of the head-separating machine Joseph-Ignace Guillotin), independently investigated Franz Anton Mesmer’s ‘animal magnetism,’ not Mesmer himself, however, but an imitator whom he did not want. For different reasons, both commissions concluded: “nullité de magnetism.” The commission of the Academy attributed the magnetic healing successes essentially to the power of ‘imagination’ – an interpretation that comes very close to modern explanations of Mesmer’s work or the effect of hypnotic effects.

After longer journeys to Switzerland, Lake Constance, among other places – Mesmer is still a citizen of the principality of Meersburg – and (probably) to Italy, Mesmer returns to Paris in 1788 to become politically active as well. The Société de l’ Harmonie had meanwhile become a hotbed of revolutionary pamphlets under the leadership of the lawyer Bergasse (Darnton 1986). Influential politicians were among Mesmer’s followers – including Lafayette. Those of his students who were parliamentarians usually belonged to the moderate party – they fell victim to the guillotine to a large extent after the outbreak of the Revolution (Florey 1995, p. 162).

Although he made many trips abroad during these years, Mesmer himself spent most of the early revolutionary period in Paris. Then, according to his account, he fled to Switzerland in 1993. It was the time of the guillotine, and besides many of his followers, some of his opponents were executed: among others, the chemist and expert of 1784 A.L. Lavoisier.

1793 is a revealing year regarding the political activities of F.A. Mesmer. At the end of the year, he was in Vienna. The ‘reform emperor’ Joseph II had died on February 20, 1790, giving way to his less enlightened brother Leopold II. His reactionary-minded son Franz II succeeded in 1792 under unexplained circumstances. After Mesmer had met the former educator Franz II Andreas von Riedel (1748 – 1837) in 1991 – during a stay in Vienna to settle the estate of his deceased wife – he was in intensive contact with his circle of ‘Viennese Jacobins’ in the fall of 1993. From 17.11.93 to 9.12.93, Mesmer was then in “segregated pre-detention.” (Florey 1995, p. 181). Unlike most of the other followers of the ‘Viennese Jacobin Circle,’ he was not executed but was probably released due to the support of influential proteges. He travels back to Paris and is said to have brought plans of a war machine there. (Florey 1995, p. 183). As a citizen of the Meersburg principality, Mesmer was not considered an enemy of the state during the war period.

What the initially purely curative ‘animal magnetism’ should have to do with a political and enlightened concept of state and politics, Mesmer himself presents in his late work (1814). At the center was an organically conceived concept of the state; its central concept was ‘harmony.’

In the 90s of the 18th century, Mesmer’s life is challenging to follow. Many trips are followed by just as many more permanent changes of location. However, Mesmer kept his Paris apartment at least until 1793. When Mesmer was released from prison in Vienna, this was done with the condition to settle ‘in the area of his birthplace.’ However, the high diocese of Constance, with the prince-bishop residing in Meersburg, was itself under the influence (and intelligence surveillance) of Austria. Mesmer probably, therefore, settled in the nearby Swiss Thurgau and acquired the Thurgau land law in 1794. He lived in Wagenhausen near Stein am Rhein until 1798.

Mesmer stayed in Paris again from 1798. His activities now focused on reclaiming from the French state his considerable fortune, which had been lost during the Revolution. He was successful and was awarded the high sum of 3000 fl. per year as a pension until his death: This corresponded to about 2.5 kilos of gold per year.

In 1799 Mesmer wrote a justification of his doctrine of ‘animal magnetism. In 1802 he returned to Meersburg, which had become part of Baden, but at the same time kept an apartment in Frauenfeld, Thurgau, from 1804. Mesmer practiced his medicine there without the enormous public attention of the preceding decades and had a rather quiet following. In many parts of Germany, he is even considered dead until he is ‘rediscovered’ in 1810 by the philosopher and naturalist Lorenz Oken (1779 – 1851), associate professor at the medical faculty of Jena. The Prussian government set up a commission to ‘examine magnetism,’ headed by the state councilor and royal personal physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762 – 1836). On behalf of the commission, the physician Karl Wolfart travels to Mesmer and receives the manuscript of Mesmer’s last work, written mainly in French.

In 1813 Mesmer moved to Constance for a short time and settled in Meersburg in the summer of 1814.

Finally, on March 5, 1815, Mesmer died in Meersburg, where the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians erected a marble tomb for him.

2. Theory and Method of Animal Magnetism – or the human body as part of an animate universe

In section 2.1. the basic ideas of Mesmer concerning his theory of ‘animal magnetism’ will be described. Mesmer’s political theories cannot be discussed in detail. Section 2.2. tries to describe what Mesmer and his followers actually did when they treated their patients with ‘animal magnetism.’

2.1 The Theory of Animal Magnetism

“If someone wants to say that history with my eyes is mere imagination, I am satisfied, and I demand more from no doctor in the world than that he should achieve so much that I firmly imagine that I am healthy and do not feel any evil in my body, because I think that everything comes to that with my eyes
to myself. And an evil in my body, of which the soul imagines nothing,
is just as much as no evil, at least in my thoughts (…)”.

Peter von Osterwald, Director of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1776, after F.A. Mesmer had allegedly cured him

Clarification of terms and classification in medical and scientific concepts of the 18th century

Often misunderstood and often deliberately misinterpreted, ‘animal magnetism’ or the Germanization’ thierischer Magnetismus’ does not mean animal in the sense of ‘bestial.’ Animalistic, of course, derives from Latin and means as much as ‘animate’ or ‘living.’ The ‘magnetism of living beings’ is therefore what F.A. Mesmer believed to have discovered (Schott 1985, p. 236; Florey 1995, p. 67). In the decades after Mesmer, the terms’ life magnetism’ and ‘healing magnetism’ have also become established in the German-speaking world (compare, for instance, Mayo 1854) But the inventor of the term was Athanasius Kircher (1601 – 1680), who is often called one of the last ‘universal scholars.’ In his work Magnes sive de arte magnetica, published in 1643, he tried to summarize the knowledge of magnetism at that time. One finds a section entitled De Magnetismo Animalium. Kircher also describes healings through sounds and music – an aspect Mesmer also takes up in using the glass harmonica. In the Dillingen Study Library, almost 250 years after Mesmer’s time as a student, one can still find works that summarize the knowledge of magnetism at that time. Apart from Kircher, the writings of William Gilbert (De magnete, magnetisquecorporibus et de magno magnete tellure 1600) and of Franz Ulrich Theodor Aepinus (Tentamen theoriae electricitatis et magnetismi 1759) were considered works that summarized the knowledge of the forces of magnetism and the newly discovered electricity.

The animism of Georg Ernst Stahl (1659 – 1734) can be understood as a medical conception that explicitly opposed the increasingly mechanistic tendencies in natural science and medicine. In Stahl’s conception, the attempt was to be made to close the looming schism of natural scientific medicine, in which ‘the body becomes mechanistic and the soul uncanny’ (compare Geyer-Kordesch 1985, p. 20). Von Stahl opposes the Cartesian dualism of a body which as res extensa possesses machine-like features and a soul, which as res cogitans is opposed to this machine, by explicitly considering the body as an organism controlled by soul processes. Also, in Stahl’s etiology, in which signs of illness are an expression of the healing efforts of the soul, which the physician has to support, one finds figures of thought (Eckart 1994, p. 178f.)one finds figures of thought which precede Mesmer’s ‘concept of crisis’ (For Mesmer, the magnetizer has to support and promote the – idiosyncratic – crisis of the individual).

Successors of Georg Ernst Stahl, like Francois Boissier de la Croix de Sauvages (1706 – 1776), emphasized like him the mental forces as ‘movens’ of the body but accentuated the bodily functions differently, for example, as “fragile machine” (loc. cit.). Several theories of vitalism emerge in the wake of Stahl’s conception, the central feature of which is to postulate a principle of life thought to be independent of the body. The late Mesmer admirer Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland developed a doctrine of vitality that was widely disseminated among the ‘romantic’ medical community in Germany.

Mesmer knew these theories and several scientific conceptions of his time, which makes the doctrine of animal magnetism developed by him appear in a more plausible light (See further below.)

Before briefly outlining some of these theories as critical framings of Mesmer’s concept in the history of ideas, I will first present Mesmer’s teaching.

How did the theory of animal magnetism come about?

Mesmer himself repeatedly celebrated the discovery of animal magnetism as a great scientific discovery, and he did so with the pathos of inspiration.

After Mesmer had been treating humoral medicine for about eight years, in 1773, a patient came to his practice suffering from no less than 15 symptoms, including headache, earache, toothache, and peculiar seizures – today, one would probably diagnose the patient’s symptoms as psychosomatic. Mesmer now experimented – on the suggestion of the Viennese astronomer Maximillian Hell – with magnets and had the idea to produce an ‘artificial high water,’ analogous to the ebb and flow produced by the moon. (Ellenberger 1996, p. 97). This happened against the background of a time when the newly discovered electricity appeared to many as a synonym for the life force inherent in all living bodies. As an equally mysterious force, magnetism also had the reputation of being able to cause powerful and unexplored effects.

Mesmer infused the patient with an iron-containing preparation and attached magnets to various parts of her body. After a short time, the patient noticed unusual currents in her body, and the symptoms, including her pain, disappeared for a few hours (op. cit.). In Mesmer’s account: “This caused her, in a very short time, extraordinary sensations. She felt, inwardly, a painful streaming of a very fine matter, which moved soon there, soon there, but finally into the lower parts of the body, and freed her for 6 hours from all distant attacks.” (Mesmer 1985 – nach der Ausgabe von 1781, p. 14).

Mesmer interpreted this in such a way that those effects could not come from the magnet alone but had to come from ‘an essentially different agent.’ After many experiments on his patients, Mesmer developed the idea that this ‘acting principle’ was a kind of magnetism of the living bodies, the ‘animal magnetism.’

Mesmer’s System of Interactions – or Animal Magnetism

In the following, we will adopt a distinction formulated by Gereon Wolters in his essay on ‘Mesmer and his problem: scientific rationality (1988). Thus, according to Wolters, it is helpful to divide Mesmer’s teaching into three areas:

  • Mesmer’s theory of nature includes cosmic and terrestrial phenomena, which he already described in his doctorate. The Theory of Animal Magnetism (TAM)
  • The nosology of Animal Magnetism (NAM)
  • Mesmer’s Healing Concept of Animal Magnetism (HAM)

Moreover, in the light of recent Mesmer research, it makes sense, in addition to Wolter’s suggestions, to add

  • Mesmer’s political and pedagogical theory is closely related to his doctrine of animal magnetism as a universal phenomenon. The political theory of Animalic Magnetism (PAM). However, this is not the subject of the current paper.

The Theory of Animal Magnetism (TAM)

Mesmer’s doctrine is a mechanistic fluid theory, which can be called the ‘magnetic version’ of medicine, which until then appears as vitalism (op. cit., p. 122).

In his 1781 writing, Mesmer formulates 27 tenets in which he sets forth his concepts. According to this

  1. The universe is filled with a subtle fluid – animal magnetism, which permeates both organic and inorganic bodies. The fluid enables the bodies to be in constant interaction with each other.
  2. As an extremely fine liquid, this fluid is governed by mechanical laws unknown (to it) so far.
  • On the ‘animal’ and the human body, the “alternate effects of this Principium have an influence, in that it penetrates the substance of the nerves, and acts directly upon them.” (Mesmer 1985 – nach der Ausgabe von 1781, p. 48). Cf. also Newton’s ether theory and the contemporary medical concepts of a nerve fluid.
  1. The human body is just like inorganic bodies capable of ‘alternating effects,’ as comparable to these ‘ebb and flow’ can be produced in it, i.e., it is essentially polar. Therefore Mesmer compares him with a magnet.
  2. You can connect, change, destroy and strengthen the poles of this body.
  3. The effects and the power of the animal magnetism can be communicated to other – living and lifeless – bodies. Certain bodies tend to amplify the (animal) magnetic force or to propagate it.
  • The magnetic force can also be mediated over distances. It can be accumulated, mediated, crowded together, and brought from one place to another.
  • There is also an anti-polar, quasi anti-magnetic force or negative magnetic force, which has the same properties as the positive one.
  1. The fluidum postulated by Mesmer extended in his opinion in bodies like artificial or natural magnets and all other substances. The healing effects of magnets, electricity, etc., are therefore due to the effects of animal magnetism.
  2. According to Mesmer, animal magnetism cures nervous diseases directly and diseases of the body indirectly.
  3. The application of animal magnetism can perfect the effect of medicines and medical cures.

It is immediately apparent that Mesmer has transferred to his fluid almost all the then known properties of the not yet comprehensively researched and mathematized forces of electricity and magnetism as well as the acoustic aspect of sound conduction. As with the magnet, animal magnetism’s receptivity and ‘behavior’ is polar; as with electricity, it can be accumulated, stored (cf. the Leyden bottle, which became popular at the time), and transported. In addition, animal magnetism is transmitted and amplified by sound waves (especially the glass harmonica) and reflected by mirrors (compare Wolters 1988, p. 123).

Although Mesmer never tires of emphasizing the difference between animal and ‘mineral’ magnetism in his writings, the two are often mixed up in the decades after his discovery – occasionally also for defamation purposes. Ernst Florey calls the history of Mesmer’s teachings “a comedy of confusion” (Florey 1988, p. 25).

The Disease Theory of Animal Magnetism (NAM)

Mesmer’s nosology can be seen as a variant of humoral pathology, which assumes that disease results from an unbalanced mixture of humors in the body (dyscrasia). On the other hand, health results from a harmonious, balanced mixture of blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile (syncrasia, eucrasia) (Eckart 1994, p. 60 f.).

In the magnetic doctrine, health means a harmonious relationship between movement and (muscular) solidification. In his old-age work, Mesmer formulates this as maintenance of the ‘fire of life,’ which one may probably put synonymously with the fluidum formulated by him. Health is the restoration of the irritability of the muscles and the mobility of the organism (Schott 1985, p. 241).

Accordingly, the disease is a muscular weakness based on hardening, which leads to a stagnation of the circulation of vital juices. The consequence of this stagnation is various symptoms. The pathological hardening of the muscles is ultimately the reason for the onset of death.


Mesmer’s Healing Concept (HAM) – or the Role of the Physician

“There is only one disease and one cure.”

Franz Anton Mesmer

The mesmeric system’s medical art consists of concentrating “animal magnetism,” that is, the fluid inherent in all living things, on one’s organism and then transferring this fluid to the sick person. Some persons are particularly gifted in the accumulation of magnetic forces and those who are less able to do so (For example, Mesmer attributed to the exorcist Gassner, whom he ‘disproved’ – see section 1 – a significant amount of ‘animal magnetism’ which exceeded even his ability to accumulate).

The transmission of the animal magnetism then takes place via the nerve tracts, which set the muscles in new motion with refreshed, strengthened, or increased fluid to work towards the desired harmonious relationship. (Wolters 1988, p. 124).

The physician thus occupies a powerful position. Only he can accumulate enough fluid to be passed on to the sick. This position of the physician is strengthened on the one hand in Mesmer’s Paris time when he invents a group treatment. Still, it is balanced, on the other hand, by the weightier role of the fellow patients and stimulation by their crises. The magnetizer plays the role of a catalyst for a self-organizing group process.

The unique thing about Mesmer’s concept of healing was undoubtedly his idea of crisis. For Mesmer, the crisis-like states of his patients, in which they often fell into convulsive or cataleptic processes, were a means of healing – as much as they were proof of the existence of the disease (compare Ellenberger 1996, p. 103 f.). Mesmer wanted to evoke these crises. The crisis was the way to overcome the pathogenic resistance (of the congealed muscles). “The crisis is the general procedure and the action of nature for the restoration of the disturbed harmony between liquid and solid parts” (Mesmer 1812, p. 36).

This was at the same time one of the first aspects of his theory, which his followers modified on the long way from animal magnetism to modern hypnosis. In the generation of his disciples, an influential figure emerged, the Marquis de Puysegur, who replaced Mesmer’s crisis theory with the concept of the somnambulic state. Ellenberger emphasized that Mesmer’s crisis theory was a direct transfer of Gassner’s practice of exorcism. In the latter’s ecclesiastical-ritual practice, the probationary exorcism (exorcismus probativus) represented an indispensable intermediate step for liberation from the demons to be exorcised. If there was no symptom, i.e., demon, Gassner sent his patients to the doctor (op. cit., p. 91). Mesmer takes up this figure of thought in his crisis theory.

An interesting aspect of this conviction is Mesmer’s view that each patient develops a crisis specific to his disease. The asthmatic, so to speak, has an asthma attack, the person with epilepsy, accordingly, an epileptic seizure. Mesmer differentiates this view in his late work to the idea that in the crisis, every human being reveals, as it were, a disposition peculiar to him, represents it, and enhances it. Mesmer thus unintentionally ‘psychologizes’ his theory of crisis, which leads him, for example, to the assertion that the French – in his Parisian period – for example, “jumped around a lot in their crises, danced, sang, and laughed” ( Diary entries of a student friend of Mesmer, quoted in: Florey 1995).

In addition to this conception of crisis, the treatment situation that Mesmer created by emphasizing the magnetizer or his personality in the treatment process represents a step forward and at the same time a provocation against the mechanizing and academizing medical art of healing. Mesmer emphasizes the importance of the doctor-patient relationship and introduces the concept of therapeutic rapport, which is still accepted as a central concept in psychotherapy, respectively in hypnosis. For this reason, among others, he is stylized by Ellenberger as a forefather of modern psychotherapy (cf. 1996) – while on closer inspection, however, this applies even more to the generation of his students and successors.

Besides the integration of contemporary physical and medical theories (see below) and the emphasis on the concept of crisis, another dimension of Mesmerian animal magnetism is the pronounced sense of mission and the person of Mesmer himself, who throughout his life considered his discovery to be one of the most outstanding discoveries in human history. Here is the source of the Mesmeristic cult of the personality and the individual.


The Origin of Mesmer’s teachings in Contemporary Scientific and Medical Theories

In addition, some backgrounds in the history of ideas and science should be mentioned here, which help to understand Mesmer’s conception.

Medical theories

For example, the view of the physiology of the nerves at that time that the nerves were hollow, similar to the blood vessels, and that a fine fluid flowed in their inside (compare, for instance, Florey 1995, p. 119 on the physiology of hearing of the time). Mesmer takes over this physiological view and postulates this nerve fluid to the ‘animal magnetism.’

Scientific and philosophical theories

The mathematization of the natural sciences had made a decisive leap with René Descartes (1596 – 1650), Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There were relatively comprehensively formulated theories such as Newton’s on gravity. At the same time, philosophical forces had formed against the view that nature could be explained by mathematization alone. At the end of the 18th century, Friedrich Schiller put this intellectual current into words: “It is the naked cutting intellect that wants to have shamelessly measured out nature, which is always incomprehensible and in all points venerable and unfathomable, and with an impudence that I do not comprehend, makes its formulas, which are often only empty words and always only narrow concepts, it’s standard (…)” (Schiller cited in: Florey 1988, p. 20). This anti-mechanistic movement was also the starting point of the vitalistic theories mentioned above.

Electricity and magnetism were less well researched and mathematically explained phenomena, which aroused the curiosity of contemporaries in many ways. Not only in the various physical experimentation rooms and private laboratories – Robert Darnton describes how, for example, the later revolutionary politicians Jean Paul Marat and Maximillien Robespierre first came to the light of day with ‘scientific’ publications (Darnton 1986, p. 46 f.). Experimentation and demonstration of the natural forces of electricity and magnetism had become a public passion, especially in the Paris of the Ancièn Regime: it was in this field that Mesmerism gained its following.

Many sources influenced the philosophical-scientific knowledge about magnetism, some of them historical.

Petrus Peregrinus did experiments with magnets in the 13th century. The term ‘pole’ comes from him (Florey 1988, p. 22). William Gilbert (1544 – 1603) published his treatise on magnetism in 1600, in which he describes the earth itself as polar. Finally, Georg Hartmann (1489 – 1564) developed the method of ‘magnetizing’ iron needles by brushing them with a magnet. First attempts of mathematization were made by John Mitchell (1724 – 1793).

Also, Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) compared the human body with a magnet within his medical-universalistic theory, which can draw illness from the “chaos of the universe or a sick body to itself” (Florey 1988, p. 21) and recommended the application of magnets by placing them on the diseased part of the body.

The Englishman Robert Fludd (1574 – 1636) explained that the human being as a microcosm also has magnetic qualities; it has two poles like the earth, from which an active and a passive current circulates in the human body.

The alchemist and physician Jan Baptista von Helmont (1579 -1644) had considered magnetism as a celestial force not bound to any distance. He compared it to an etheric spirit which “purely and vividly pervades all things and moves the mass of the universe” (loc. cit.). This finally resembles the concept of the physics of the 18th century, in which the ‘ether’ was regarded as a massless carrier of light.

Finally, the concept of electricity comes from William Gilbert mentioned above, who conducted the first electrical experiments. Otto von Guericke (1602 – 1686) invented the first electrifying machine. Finally, in the middle of the 18th century, with the Leyden bottle (Peter Musschenbroeck and at the same time Georg Kleist), a capacitor was invented in which electricity could be stored and transported. (Florey 1988, p.24).

As far as the physics of the time was concerned, Newton’s aether theory is still to be mentioned, which was not based on experimental but on speculative grounds but was quite popular.

Finally, the imponderables discussion of 18th-century physics as a whole should be mentioned. It was postulated that, for example, light and fire (heat) was not substances, not measurable quantities (Blankenburg 1985, p. 75).

Against this background of the history of ideas, Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism seems less original than a transfer of contemporary ideas from physics and medicine to his field.

2.2 A magnetic treatment

The following is intended to give an impression of what awaited a patient during magnetic treatment.

Curiously, Mesmer and even his immediate successors theorized more about their teachings than described their practical execution. Detailed treatment reports are scarce, namely if one holds the modern paradigm that Mesmerism was an early, ritualized, and ‘magical’ form of hypnosis treatment. This modern view, which began to gain academic acceptance in the 1980s, emphasizes the role of suggestion and imagination primarily communicated through language. However, what and how much was said has hardly been handed down. Obviously, the attention of patients and observers, as well as that of the magnetists themselves, was more focused on physical phenomena and their mechanistic interpretation than on crises produced by fluids.

Mesmer’s early treatment methods and their further development

Using the example of his first model patient, it became clear that Mesmer intended to imitate the ‘crisis-generating nature ‘to assist it, as it were, in the generation of symptoms, to accelerate, amplify – to support re-harmonization.

Mesmerism and later stereotypes of hypnosis

Mesmerism and later stereotypes of hypnosis

In the case of ‘Fräulein Österlin’ this was done by attaching a heart-shaped magnet to the chest and two curved ones to the legs after the patient had ingested an iron-containing preparation (Ellenberger 1996, p. 97). The patient then experienced a “hot tearing pain starting from the feet, flowing upwards, leaving a burning sensation like a glowing coal at every joint.” (Mesmer cited in Florey 1995, p. 62). Here we are not yet talking about the strokes that later became famous, the ‘passes.’

With the same patient, Mesmer tries other variations of attaching magnets and different shapes of magnets.

Over the years, Mesmer developed more sophisticated methods – but never created an explicit system himself. Mesmer healed intuitively and, as Geyer-Kordesch puts it, in the mode of ritual and banishment, which sought to unite the soul and the body (1985, p. 19). As a form of treatment, however, a ‘mesmerist posture’ crystallized, in which doctor and patient sat facing each other in such a way that the knees of the former touched those of the patient. Air strokes were then performed along the body or lingered on certain parts of the body that proved to be particularly significant for the postulated fluid flow. “Most mesmerists focused on the equator of the body at the hypochondrium, the abdominal area below the ribs, where Mesmer located the common sense” (Darnton 1986, p. 14). Following the theory that the fluid has polar properties, one sought to initiate the flow between these poles, avoiding the one-sided direct contact with the north and south poles.

According to Mesmer’s teachings, the transmission of magnetism was possible through direct physical contact and remote effects: he experimented with tubes and gazes. At that time, the cliché of the power of the ‘hypnotic gaze,’ still valid for hypnosis today, was formed. To amplify the fluidum, Mesmer used mirrors and, above all, music. On the glass harmonica, he played to his patients, and many a Mesmeristic effect is attributed by contemporaries to the impact of this ‘synthesizer of the 18th century’ with its spherical sounds.

The development of Mesmerism in France – the invention of group treatment

Mesmer introduced decisive modifications to the treatment situation during his time in Paris.

Ellenberger considers him the inventor of group therapy – a form of treatment in which several patients undergo a similar procedure together.

Mesmer’s practice in Paris overflowed; he tried to enlarge his treatment rooms by moving three times within a year. Rich and poor alike flocked. Mesmer now developed the Baquet, which had become famous, a kind of wooden tub filled with magnetized water from which iron rods protruded. In Mesmer’s view, the Baquet formed a “coalescing body” moved by a common tide (Schott 1985, p. 242) which was moved and connected by a common tide.  The patients formed Mesmer’s chain – each connected to one of these iron rods in anatomical proximity to their symptom. One may confidently imagine this as a kind of electric circuit, the flow of which was the task of the magnetizer. The communion with other bodies, just like music, was to strengthen the fluid. Besides the improvised music on the glass harmonica, which Mesmer loved to play, he sometimes entertained a whole orchestra.

Patients who came for such group treatments usually found themselves surrounded by a large crowd of spectators in addition to a circle of fellow sufferers. Mesmer’s helpers led those patients who fell into crisis during treatment to the so-called crisis room, where couches were located. As soon as they had overcome the crisis, Mesmer had a final talk with them and discharged the patient. (u.a. Florey 1995, p. 129). See Appendix 1, which gives a more detailed description of a group treatment at Baquet.


Magnetism for the people

Mesmer was consulted by people from all walks of life so that he soon felt compelled to set up his room, including a banquet (bathtub) for the poor.

As magnetism gained popularity, a peculiar form of folk magnetism emerged. Ideas were eventually taken up that drew on structures probably thousands of years old from folk belief: The so-called magnetized trees. Almost every settlement still had a village elm or oak, a central tree, which in a way gave the settlement a center. These often still venerated trees now became the scene of mesmerist treatments: They were ‘magnetized’ and, similar to the Baquet, the sick connected to each other with a rope to experience the magnetic cure.

3. Mesmer as a magical enlightener. Discours sans la méthode – or       the provocation of Mesmerism

“As is well known, the same physicians who courageously withstood the plague and cholera took to their heels until recent times when Mesmer’s experiments were carried out.”

Benedict, 1880, (cited in Schott 1985, p. 246)

Was Mesmer an enlightener, or were his teachings and the practice that emerged from them rather a spearhead of the counter-enlightenment, even of a magical-antirational striving?

Mesmer polarizes: For some, he is considered a ‘benefactor of the human race,’ for others, he embodies the ‘archetypal’ image of the charlatan. However, medical historians like Ellenberger paint the picture of a tragicomic natural scientist who made an important discovery but could not understand it himself (compare Schott 1985; Ellenberger 1996).

No attempt will be made to strip Mesmer’s image of its ambiguity in the following. Instead, Mesmer is to be described as a provocation for the idealism of rationality, which can be regarded as the primary construction of the Philosophical Enlightenment (and the sciences) at that time. Whether Mesmer can be considered an Enlightenment thinker or not is, of course, decided by the concept of Enlightenment that is applied here. Historically contextualized, i.e., within the framework of the ideas of ‘Enlightenment’ of his contemporaries, Mesmer’s role is to be evaluated quite differently than in the attempt to classify him in terms of the history of ideas and the history of medicine.

Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish precisely between Mesmer’s doctrine of ‘animal magnetism’ (described in the 2nd section as TAM) – i.e., his personal ideas about his practices – and the phenomena itself that he discovered. Today, the latter are generally described as consciousness phenomena of various kinds: ergotropic and trophotropic trances, hypnotic trance phenomena such as time distortion, catalepsy, amnesia, analgesia, anesthesia, etc., (compare, for instance, Erickson, Rossi, et al. 1978; Kossak 1989).

Those who, like Adorno and Horkheimer, formulate a dialectic of Enlightenment that considers it essential to regard the irrational as ‘system-immanent’, as inevitably belonging to the human condition, could appreciate Mesmer’s contribution to a philosophy and psychology of the unconscious and recognize an important – albeit theoretically unsuccessful – escape from the sloping rationality euphoria of the time. In this view, Mesmer would be considered an enlightener insofar as he paved the way for an expanded phenomenology of the human mind.

But can Mesmer also be considered an enlightener from a historical perspective? To this end, we will mention the arguments Franzisca Loetz uses to describe the term ‘Enlightenment medicine’ once again.

Medical education

By Franzisca Loetz, the following descriptive criteria for an ‘enlightenment medicine’ are mentioned, which at the same time reflect the perspectives of different disciplines such as social history or history of medicine. (1993):

  • an elite of bourgeois-academic physicians who embrace the Enlightenment beliefs in the power of reason, the perfectibility of the individual, and the general development of humanity toward a vaguely held progress are carriers of a ‘health movement’ (op. cit., p. 74)
  • The aspirations of these physicians were by no means based solely on health policy but encompassed a range of political, economic, social, and cultural ideas. For example, poverty was recognized as an essential evil of the medical situation of the population, and comprehensive demands on the state were derived from it (loc. cit. in any case, one can speak of a comprehensive mobilization of social forces for the purposes of Enlightenment medicine (e.g., clergypersons were supposed to popularize smallpox vaccination (loc. cit., p.80).
  • The moralization of illness. Illness is no longer suffering caused by God or anonymous powers and processes, but rather the behavior of the individual subject, his comprehensive life practice, should be responsible for health or disease (loc. cit.).
  • Closely related to this is the manifold formulation of a ‘civilization-critical’ bourgeois art of living, which sought to distance itself from ‘aristocratic decadence’ and from ‘lazy rabble’ alike. Dietary and occupational health rules were drawn up, and the importance of prophylaxis was emphasized (loc. cit.).
  • The rhetoric and programmatic of reason formed a central point. Criticism of bunglers and pseudo-doctors reached a climax. Scientificity’ was propagated as the major criterion for medical thought and action. On the other hand, the academic medical profession seemed to be almost exclusively capable of this scientificity. This led to a monopolization of medicine under the flag of scientific medical reason. Attempts were made, for example, to distinguish cunning deceivers from the large group of medical practitioners, from malicious deceivers, wise counselors, and ignorant good-for-nothings (op. cit., p. 76).
  • This also led to a comprehensive ‘enlightenment’ polemic against magical-religious ideas of illness, which was disseminated in extensive advice literature. Medical popular enlightenment was the order of the day (op. cit., p. 79). Hygiene and observation of one’s own body were propagated. This was accompanied by a sweeping change in the definition and self-image of physicality.
  • A fundamental redefinition of the doctor-patient relationship was created. One can speak of a hierarchization or, in a critical perspective, of disenfranchisement of the sick, or more neutrally of ‘expropriation of health’ (op. cit., p. 83). Rationalization of illness went hand in hand with the medical profession’s claims to authority.

Mesmerism in the Mirror of Enlightenment Criteria by Franzisca Loetz

Suppose we now assess animal magnetism at the time of its founder Franz Anton Mesmer from the criteria mentioned above. In that case, we by no means arrive at a clear picture – ambiguities remain even in a historical perspective. It has to be repeated that these remarks are only valid for ‘animal magnetism’ in the form practiced by Franz Anton Mesmer himself. Even during his lifetime, essential theoretical and practical concepts of his teaching were further developed and modified by students like Puységur.

Franz Anton Mesmer himself undoubtedly belonged to an elite of bourgeois-academic physicians. In his self-image, he was not only committed to the central ideas of the Enlightenment – reason, individualism, and progress – but also regarded even his discovery as a profound contribution to the scientific physics and medicine of his time (Wolters 1988, p. 124). From his medical concept, he developed far-reaching political, economic, social, and cultural consequences – which, in contrast to the views of many ‘Enlightenment doctors’, did not call for state action but rather for individual responsibility in life. (Loetz 1993)but rather placed a self-responsible lifestyle at the center of health care. But Mesmer’s ‘enlightenment’ did not only extend to physics and medicine but reached far into areas of morality and social philosophy. (Blankenburg 1985, p. 63).

Also, Mesmer is completely behind the ‘enlightened’ idea of personal responsibility in moralizing illness. However, his advice for improving individual life practice is under the rather traditional superstructure of the ‘harmonious life,’ i.e., the harmonious flow of magnetism in the body.

Regarding the argument that ‘Enlightenment doctors’ had formulated rules of ‘civilization-critical’ bourgeois art of living, Mesmer’s contribution to the development of group treatment and his pedagogical principles will be mentioned once again. In the heritage of natural philosophical authors, inspired by the educational philosophies of the 18th century focused on independence and the development of individual possibilities, he formulates rules of the art of living and education. “The child can form himself for the society to which he is destined only in the company of children” (Mesmer cited in Blankenburg 1985). Dietary or occupational medicine ‘rules’ are not found in Mesmer’s work or only in the most general form.

The Loetzian criterion of the rhetoric and programmatic of reason is difficult to assess in Mesmer’s case. It could be argued that Mesmer developed his essentially mechanistically structured system of ‘animal magnetism’ precisely to correspond to the zeitgeist of ‘reasonableness of medical action.’ Again it remains to be said that his self-image was far removed from the external assessment of many of his academic colleagues. Mesmer’s dispute against Gassner (see section 1) was conducted in the name of reason and scientificity and in opposition to Gassner’s magical-religious ideas of illness and healing. He also polemicized against the traditional, still humoral-pathological medicine of his time.

Surprising things come to light when we look at Mesmerism from the perspective of the doctor-patient relationship. The patients came – still contrary to widespread custom – to Mesmer, not the doctor to the patients. The patients themselves were seen as the bearers of the healing powers, the doctor only as a catalyst. Patients could benefit from each other at Mesmer’s baquets – a principle that was only taken up again by 20th-century psychotherapy. All these points make Mesmer appear closer to 20th than 18th-century ideas – even though ancient elements can also be found in it – such as natura sanat medicus curat. Mesmer is also the ‘inventor’ of the term rapport, which emphasized the ‘basic interpersonal variable’ in the art of healing (to which, in the end, many so-called placebo effects can also be traced).

Mesmer remains without ‘scientific’ method

The decisive question for the classification of Mesmer within the scientific tradition of the late 18th century, however, is that of Mesmer’s understanding of scientific knowledge gain and progress.

The thesis to be proven in the following is: Mesmer adopts the rhetoric of reason and rationality, the belief in scientificity as the foundation of medical practice as well as some epistemological generalities, but does not accept the rules of the game of gaining scientific knowledge defined by Descartes, Newton, Galilei, and successors at that time. In other words, Mesmer remains without a method.

The Paris Report of 1784

The above thesis will be substantiated with the presentation of the Parisian report on Mesmerism. Robert Darnton and Gereon Wolters discuss whether internal or external reasons were responsible for the rejection of Mesmerism by the two commissions convened by the French state (Darnton 1986; Wolters 1988). Internal reasons are arguments against the validity of Mesmer’s doctrine and practice. External reasons are extraneous decisions, such as a rejection of Mesmerism for reasons of raison d’état.

On March 12, 1784, Louis XVI appointed two commissions to deal with Mesmerism, which had become a cause célèbre. Their tasks were to verify animal magnetism’s existence and assess its therapeutic value. One commission consisted of members of the Royal Academy of Sciences: Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier, von Bory, le Roi, Bailly. The second consisted of physicians elected by the Paris Medical Faculty: Borie, Sallie, von Arcet, Guillotin.

Robert Darnton’s evidence supports the thesis of external rejection in the main by the following arguments (Darnton 1986):

  • Mesmerism was disliked by the government (although some parts of the court, including the queen, supported it). Darnton cites numerous examples of this, including the involvement of the Parisian mesmerists in revolutionary activities (Argument: power interests and political opportunism.)
  • The commission members were a ‘reason police in the service of state power.’ A member of the secret service took part in the commission’s investigations.
  • Also, the chemist Lavoisier, a member of the commission, had developed a theory working with an unproven fluid, the caloric theory of heat (according to which finest invisible pores permeate all material bodies)(cited in Wolters 1988, p. 128).

Gereon Wolters tries to find evidence for a rejection of Mesmerism for internal reasons. He first quotes the arguments of the (academic) commission, according to whose assessment “points of view of confused practice” (op. cit., p. 130) stamp Mesmerism as a pseudoscience:

  • the non-observance of the law of causality (according to which equal causes must have equal effects).
  • the non-distinction between facts and hypotheses. (In fact, Mesmer is convinced of his doctrine – not only of the observed phenomena – from the very beginning in the style of inspirational intuition).
  • The non-observance of the empirical principle (according to which theories have to prove themselves by experience).

The commission states in a series of experiments – which, however, refer to the practice of only one magnetizer, not accepted by Mesmer – that the effects of the magnetic fluid in the 15 test subjects depend on whether they have a ‘magnetic sensitivity’ (loc. cit., p. 131). The effect occurs only with magnetically sensitive persons if they know that they are magnetized.

The commission then asks what causes the undoubtedly observable effects of the practice of animal magnetism (HAM), if these are now independent of Mesmer’s teaching, the theory of animal magnetism (TAM). According to the conclusions of the academic commission, the causative factor for the effects was the ‘imagination,’ the “power of imagination based on the knowledge of the magnetic operations” (op. cit., p. 132). The assumption of a fluid is not necessary.

This interpretation – it should be mentioned in passing – is taken up offensively a few decades later by the successors of the magnetizers, the hypnotists – and in a new theoretical framework, it still forms the basis for an interpretation of hypnotic effects today.

Thus, the commission by no means questioned the effects of Mesmerism in principle but rejected the doctrine of magnetic fluid for plausible internal scientific reasons.

The results of the second medical commission are mentioned here only for the sake of completeness and curiosity, as they do not contribute anything to the argument put forward:

  • Mesmerism would contradict the principle of applying gentle means
  • The mesmerist convulsions produced a kind of hereditary addiction
  • The mesmerist convulsions are carcinogenic.

Mesmer never accepted the basic rules of the scientific establishment to which he felt he belonged and by which he wanted to be accepted. He argued for his fluidum theory without investigating its existence and allegedly all-embracing effects systematically – or wishing to do so. It is by no means to be denied that a number of extraneous considerations and professional political interests contributed to the rejection of Mesmerism by the commission. However, the argumentation that rejected Mesmerism based on internal considerations prevailed.

4. Conclusions

Few people know his name, all are under his effect.”

Reinhold Schneider (cited von Schott 1985)

The medical-historical and socio-cultural after-effects of magnetism beyond Franz Anton Mesmer’s work and writing are not the subject of this work. For the sake of a coherent presentation, some aspects should nevertheless be mentioned.

Heinz Schott formulates three main areas of Franz Anton Mesmer’s influence on medicine: the so-called depth-psychological turn of romantic medicine, which took Mesmerism as an impetus to search for the hidden side of human nature. The psychological and psychosomatic dimensions came to the attention of physicians. Secondly, Mesmerism initiates the psychotherapeutic turn and introduction of “hypnotism” in the second half of the 19th century, until the introduction of the theory of suggestion by Hippolyte Bernheim (1840 – 1919), professor of medicine and internist and spiritual leader of the School of Nancy (compare Weitzenhoffer 1995). Thirdly, some of Mesmer’s ideas and practice lead directly to the synthesis undertaken by Freud: for example, one can describe how it comes from Mesmer’s concept of ‘Mittheilung’ (the magnetic energy) in a kind of energy inversion to Freud’s concept of ‘transmission’ (Schott 1985, p. 248).

The American Robert Fuller further formulates a far-reaching influence of Mesmerism – enormously strong in America at the latest since the beginning of the 1940s – on the development of psychology as an academic subject. Mesmerism played a significant role in generating public interest in supporting psychological research. Furthermore, he had suggested a certain view of the ‘unconscious’ to the literate public, which differed from the Freudian interpretation (or definition). It not only located ‘lower’ impulses and drives in the ‘unconscious’ but also considered this ‘unconscious’ to be capable of ‘higher’ – healing, energizing, creative – impulses. (Fuller 1985).

Adding to all these arguments the influence of Mesmerism on the fields of literature, parapsychology, stage hypnosis, spiritual healing, and not insignificantly on the religious movements of the 19th century, Mesmer’s work may rightly be considered remarkable.

Appendix 1 Report of one of Mesmer’s Group Treatments

Description of a Mesmer group treatment during his time in Paris. Literary processing of the Zurich physician and magnetizer Emil Schneider from contemporary sources. (Schneider 1950).

“At a given signal, the patients formed the magnetic chain by touching each other with the tips of their thumbs and forefingers, thus making contact in the drawn circle among themselves. With growing tension and excitement they awaited the appearance of the master. sparsely dimmed light entered the room through deeply curtained windows, heavy carpets and wall curtains swallowed up the rare sounds and increased the silence and expectation. Excitement and feverish tension were electric in the air. Mirrors hung on the walls, from which the scenes at the Baquet peered confusingly in their duplicity. Otherwise there was deep breathing silence, interrupted only now and then by a sigh. All at once, from the next room, soft chords of the piano, a light dhor, or Mesmer’s glass harmonica, drifted in, sometimes soothing, sometimes inciting, until the tension was saturated and charged to overflowing. At last Mesmer entered, slowly, quietly, gravely, and through the chain of the sick trembled the first visible excitement. Mesmer often wore a long purple or crimson silk dress like a priest or a magician and slowly walked towards the heavy, trembling chain, quietly questioned the one about his condition, brushed the other with his magnetic wand, while he sank his gaze deep into the eyes of the patient. One he did not touch at all, but drew circles and strokes in the air at some distance from him. Soon he met a sick person, who at his touch fell into a crisis, began to scream, moan, sweat, and so soon the spell of excited silence often broke abruptly. The crisis jumped over here and there (…). Those who began to rage and scream most violently were led unobtrusively to the crisis room, where the master’s assistants tried to calm them down. One saw in every baquet treatment sick people rushing towards the master and declaring themselves healthy, others asking him for increased magnetizing or thanking him for the help on their knees.”
Appendix 2 Illustrations of “Animal Magnetism”


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Learnings from the History of Medicine: The Evolution of Psychotherapy from “magical and metaphysical theories” to evidence-based practice

What can medicine learn from its encounter with “animal magnetism“? How would it react to esoteric and metaphysical theories that evolve around an otherwise “rational” and effective therapy TODAY?
Whoever deals with the person, work, and history of Franz Anton Mesmer is confronted with the difficulty of facing a personality whose many facets make it difficult to force him into a uniform image. Mesmer seems to evade this attempt to grasp him light-footed, like one of his much-vaunted fluids.
Franz Anton Mesmer gave impulses for the most diverse disciplines and topoi. Examples are the development of anesthesia, psychiatry, psychosomatics, hypnotism, and psychotherapy. We can even learn a lot from a historical analysis of Mesmerism for the implementation of psychedelic therapies in the coming years. Particularly when it comes to dealing with irrationalism and preliminary theoretical foundations of medical practice.
For the sociological formation of psychotherapy, Mesmer’s unintended influence should not be underestimated. Beyond that, however, his teachings had an effect in the fields of parapsychology, spiritualism, which returned to Europe via America, spiritual healing, stage hypnosis, and in an extensive way in the history of literature, especially German Romanticism.

Henrik Jungaberle wrote this text in 1998 as part of his studies at the Medical Faculty Heidelberg University (heading towards his dissertation project). The essay was translated from German with the help of DeepL.