Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The brief and strange history of mesmerism and surgery

Tyler Rouse
Stratford, Ontario, Canada


A Practitioner of Mesmerism using Animal Magnetism
Wood engraving. Mesmer, Franz Anton 1734-1815.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0.

The modern era of surgery is often thought to have begun with the introduction of ether, allowing surgeons to operate on insensible patients, and do more than ever before. However, before that day in October, 1846 in Boston where ether was used publicly for the first time, surgeons did attempt to alleviate the suffering of their patients through a number of ways, including herbal concoctions, alcohol, and opium. But one of the strangest methods had a brief moment of fame in the middle of the nineteenth century, and was in fact in direct competition with ether. The eminent British surgeon, Robert Liston, after performing the first operation under ether in Europe, made reference to it with his famous line, “This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow.”

Mesmerism is named after its founder, the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who described his theory of “animal magnetism” in the late eighteenth century, claiming that a universal fluid was the determinant of all health.1 This theory postulated that magnets could control the fluid’s influence on disease, as improper flow or congestion was felt to be the cause of illness. This was summed up in Mesmer’s statement “there is only one disease and one cure.”2 By manipulating this secret fluid, Mesmer could put patients in a state of peaceful sedation, which was likely an example of clinical hypnosis.3

Despite “animal magnetism” being thoroughly discredited in Paris by a Royal Commission set up by King Louis XVI in 1784,1 its popularity persisted, with a revival occurring in Britain in the 1840s.

While there were reports of mesmerism being used to control pain in a clinical setting, the first reported use of mesmerism in surgery occurred in Paris on April 12, 1829, when the surgeon Jules Cloquet removed a tumor from the breast of a sixty-four-year-old woman, Madame Plantin. The operation took ten to twelve minutes, during which the patient showed no signs of discomfort. She remained in a “mesmeric state” for two days, and upon waking had no recollection of the surgery.3,4

In that same year, an Irishman known simply as Chenevix brought mesmerism from Paris to London, where he gave several demonstrations of the technique. This caught the attention of the English physician John Elliotson, who arranged for Chenevix to try it out on patients in St. Thomas Hospital, the results of which were published in the London Medical and Physical Journal.5

One of Elliotson’s close friends, Thomas Wakley, had started a medical journal called The Lancet just a few years earlier, with the mission to expose and denounce quackery. In the first edition, Wakley pledged to seek to end “mystery and concealment” in medicine in order to “detect and expose the impositions of ignorant practitioners.”6 Elliotson’s success came in part from The Lancet publishing his lectures, which led to his appointment as professor at the new University College Hospital. While there, he invited yet another practitioner of mesmerism, the French Baron Jules Dupotet, to demonstrate his techniques on patients. Elliotson published his results in The Lancet, launching mesmerism into the minds of the nineteenth century British medical establishment.

Demonstrations were held in the University College Hospital lecture theater, attracting large crowds and some famous visitors, including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens.6 This led to some jealousy amongst his peers, and an opposition movement was led by the famous surgeon Robert Liston, who by then was head of surgery at University College Hospital.5 This came to a head at a meeting of the Medical Committee of the Hospital in June of 1838, which resulted in a resolution to stop the public demonstrations. By September of that year, Elliotson’s friend Wakley had turned on him, and The Lancet published editorials denouncing mesmerism after the failed testing of two famous patients at Elliotson’s home in Bedford Square in August. On December 27, 1838, the Council of the University College passed a resolution to ban the practice of mesmerism or animal magnetism from the hospital, leading to the resignation of John Elliotson.5

He did not give up so easily on mesmerism, however, and founded a journal entitled The Zoist, “a journal of cerebral physiology and mesmerism and their application to human welfare.”7 This ran from April of 1843 to December of 1855, and within it, Elliotson published reports of painless surgical operations under mesmerism, the most famous of which were performed by the surgeon James Esdaile in India.

Esdaile worked for the East India Company and was in charge of the Native Hospital at Hooghly, India. On April 4, 1845, inspired by Elliotson, he performed his first operation on a mesmerized patient. By January 22, 1846, Esdaile reported seventy-three cases.5 There were other reports of success from around the world in the pages of The Zoist. In fact, a number of hospitals dedicated to mesmerism would appear in Europe and England, including Bristol, Dublin, and Exeter,7 as well as the London Mesmeric Infirmary started by Elliotson in Bedford Square, across from his own home, which operated from 1850-1852.8

But the most successful mesmeric hospital, the Calcutta Mesmeric Hospital, was commissioned by the Governor General of Bengal and led by Esdaile. There he performed thousands of operations under mesmerism, including amputations, lithotomies, scrotal tumor resections, hydrocele repairs, and cataract removals.5 Interestingly, while working there, Esdaile experimented with a newer method of pain control recently described by a Boston surgeon, known as ether. And he seemed to immediately recognize its power, if not its inevitable replacement of mesmerism: “By cautious and graduated doses, and with a knowledge of the best antidotes, I think it extremely probable that this power will soon become a safe means of procuring insensibility, for the most formidable surgical operations even.”5

If Esdaile did not see the writing on the wall for mesmerism, Robert Liston certainly did. Following the first reported case of ether used as an anesthetic on October 16, 1846,9 it did not take Liston long to follow suit. On December 19 of that same year, Liston performed an above-knee amputation under ether anesthesia. At the conclusion of the operation, the patient asked, “When are you going to begin?” leading Liston to famously proclaim, “This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow.”10

Thus began the inevitable decline of mesmerism in surgery. While its proponents rightfully proclaimed that it was much safer, the results with ether anesthesia were irrefutable. And this was helped along by Thomas Wakley and The Lancet, which published 112 articles on ether anesthesia in the first six months of 1847.11 And at the announcement of the opening of a Mesmeric Hospital in London, it published a devastating poem in the editorial pages:5


Publication by Dr. John Elliotson describing operations
under mesmerism
. Wellcome Images,
Wikimedia Commons

It appears from your last, as I erst had suspected

That a Mesmeric Hospital’s to be erected;

And if the subscriptions pour in pretty fast,

The scheme will perhaps be accomplished at last.

Dr. E. will of course be the leading physician!

A man of acknowledged and vast erudition,

Well versed in the art; and the cream of the joke is,

He has booked for the nurses the two little Okeys.

Then away with examiners, drugs and degrees;

Away with old fashions, excepting the fees;

Away with the Hall, and away with the College;

Away with chirurgo-medical knowledge;

The “passes” will act like the wand of a fairy,

For Mesmer’s the “grand plenipotentiary.”

All the hospitals’ heads will be hid and diminished,

The moment this foetal Mesmeric is finished,

And paupers, in future will learn to despise,

King’s College, The London, St. George’s and Guy’s.

No more shall we hear the afflicted complain,

Operations will give more of pleasure than pain;

And ladies will smile in their mesmerised trance

As the pains of their uterine efforts advance.

Then shut up the schools, burn the Pharmacopoeia,

Let us carry out all Dr. Mesmer’s idea:

And whilst skeptics their agonized vigils are keeping

His disciples will through their afflictions be sleeping.


Although Elliotson raged at the “etherists” in the editorial pages of The Zoist, and other mesmerism supporters continued to argue its advantages, by the 1850s mesmerism and surgery had parted ways, and the mesmeric hospitals all closed, with chemical anesthetics having thoroughly replaced mesmerism in the operating theater. However, credit must be given where it is due. Mesmerism has essentially vanished from medical practice (although its descendant lives on under the name of therapeutic hypnosis, bestowed upon it by the Scottish surgeon James Braid in 1843),5 but it did introduce the concept of insensibility during surgery, and likely launched ether into the stratosphere by providing a foil for it to compete with for the attention of the public and medical establishment alike.



  1. Parish D. Mesmer and his critics. N J Med. 1990;87(2):108-110.
  2. Mesmer FA: Maxims on Animal Magnetism. Mt. Vernon, NY, The Eden Press, 1957.
  3. Schulz-Stubner S. Clinical Hypnosis and Anesthesia – An Historical Review and Its Clinical Implications in Today’s Practice. Bull Anesth Hist. 2000 Jan;18(1):1,4-5.
  4. Hammond D C. Hypnosis as Sole Anesthesia for Major Surgeries: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives. Am J Clin Hypn. 2008;51(2):101-121.
  5. Rosen G. Mesmerism and Surgery: A Strange Chapter in the History of Anesthesia. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 1946;1(4):527-550.
  6. Moore W. John Elliotson, Thomas Wakley, and the mesmerism feud. The Lancet. 2017;389(10083):1975-1976.
  7. James C D. Mesmerism: A Prelude to Anesthesia. Proc Roy Soc Med. 1975;68(7):446-447.
  8. Fuge C A. Bedford Square: A connexion with mesmerism. 1986;41(7):726-730.
  9. Bigelow H J. Insensibility during surgical operations produced by inhalation. Boston Med Surg J. 1846;35:309-317.
  10. Surgery between Hunter and Lister: As exemplified by the Life and Works of Robert Liston. Proc Roy Soc Med. 1972;65:26-30
  11. Ethereal Epidemic: Mesmerism and the Introduction of Inhalation Anaesthesia to Early Victorian London. Soc Hist Med. 1991 Apr;4(1):1-27.



DR. TYLER B. ROUSE has long held an interest in the history of medicine, and in particular, the history of modern surgery. He is the creator and producer of the ongoing podcast series “Legends of Surgery,” which covers a wide variety of topics within the world of surgery. As well, he has a number of publications covering both academic topics and medical humanities.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 2– Spring 2019
Winter 2019   |  Sections  |  Surgery

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