James L. Franklin, MD
Rush University, Chicago, Illinois, United States
Franz Anton Mesmer
Operagoers attending a performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte may be surprised to witness Despina, the clever maid of the twin heroines of the opera, impersonating a doctor and invoking the latest magnetic methods of the Parisian practitioner Mesmer. In this scene, she restores to health the twin heroes of the opera who, having suffered from pseudo convulsions, now lie unconscious on the stage. So who was the famous Dr. Mesmer that Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte chose to satire in their opera buffa of 1790?
Franz Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in the town of Iznang in Swabia, near Lake Constance. He graduated from the Medical Faculty of Vienna in 1766, and two years later married a rich widow, which provided him with wealth and status he would not have easily attained through work as a physician. In 1773 he attended a 27-year-old woman who according to him was quite ill, suffering from fifteen distinct symptoms that included paralysis, persistent vomiting and urinary retention, a desperate situation from which she was fully expected to die. Having heard of the therapeutic use of magnets by English physicians, Mesmer induced her to swallow a preparation containing iron and then attached magnets to her stomach and legs. She eventually improved greatly and Mesmer postulated that the “magnetic fluid” emanating from his own body was responsible for her cure.
He subsequently commissioned from the Royal Astronomer in Vienna magnets of various shapes for application to different parts of the body. He toured Bavaria and demonstrated his skills in front of the Elector of Munich and thereby expanded his public recognition as a healer. His reputation growing, he returned to Vienna where he began to arouse the hostility of his medical colleagues.
The year 1777 marks the date that Mesmer undertook the treatment of a second patient, a blind pianist who had appeared at first to be a normal child but at the age of three woke up one morning and was unable to see. It was the general consensus of her treating physicians that the optic nerve was undamaged and that there was no fundamental reason why she could not see. Mesmer also found she suffered from spasms of her eyes, depression and transports of delirium. To make matters worse, she had received what would seem to us to be horrific treatment at the hands of her prior physicians, including the application of a plaster cast of her skull and face and a series of over 3,000 painful electrical shocks to her eyes. Mesmer’s therapy consisted of the transmission of “Animal Magnetism” through what we might refer to as the laying on of hands. She reportedly improved rapidly and eventually was even able perceive the doctor’s face. Later that year she relapsed, and following an altercation with the girl’s parents, he was ordered “to cease this imposture.”
One year later Mesmer left Vienna for Paris, where he sought without success to obtain the approval of his theories from the established medical community. Yet, his reputation as a healer had spread to Paris and from his arrival, his help was sought by many patients. His methods employed the bizarre and now notorious Baquet. This was a large wooden tub filled with “magnetized water” and iron rods protruding from its sides to which patients attached themselves or the afflicted parts of their anatomy. Treatment proceeded according to a concept that included a trance-like state and a crisis including convulsive activity.
The popularity of Mesmer’s methods with the public, particularly the aristocratic members of society, and the controversy and antagonism that it generated within the scientific and medical community during the six years since Mesmer's arrival in Paris, led Louis XVI to satisfy himself on the merits of these theories and methods of treatment. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin serving as the American Foreign Minister to France and lionized in Parisian society, was appointed to head the Royal Commission charged with the investigation. Other members of the commission included Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, a great name in the history of chemistry and Joseph Ignace Guillotin whose name was to be immortalized by the historical events which were soon to follow.
Convening in March of 1784 and issuing their official report by August, the commission found no evidence to support Mesmer’s theories of “Animal Magnetism,” and raised concerns about the harmful effects of the so-called “crises” that patients were induced to experience. They also issued a secret report questioning the potential harm to female patients from quite literal physical contact with male magnetizers. The findings of the commission and the subsequent events of the French Revolution eventually led Mesmer to leave Paris. After a brief return to his Vienna estate, he spent his final years in the Swiss Republic and the Swabian soil of his birth where he died on March 5, 1815 at the age of eighty-one.
Before his death, Mesmer may have had an indication that his name would not fade totally into oblivion. In 1812, he was visited by a delegation from the Berlin Academy of Science that subsequently honored him after his death with an elaborate monument marking the site of his grave. The evolution of his methods in the treatment of nervous disorders took a turn that he could not have foreseen as the focus shifted toward hypnotism and its therapeutic application. He is further credited with having initiated the early beginnings of psychiatry. The history of these trends during the 19th century would include the study and treatment of hysteria by the famous neurologist Jean Martin Charcot in France. There existed a fascination with the altered mental state induced by hypnotism in the literature of the 19th century, most notably in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Just as the name of one his judges of the Royal Commission of 1784 has been imbedded into our language, so since as early as 1837, his name is part of our literature and everyday speech. Who among us would not prefer to be “mesmerized” to being “guillotined”?
JAMES L. FRANKLIN, MD is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen's Chicago Society for the History of Medicine and the Humanities.