Mesmer's magical magnetism

(Published in Grail World 15/2000)

"My healing method cannot be learned, it has been given to me. "
          Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).

The 18th century was an interesting and complicated epoch in the history of the West, in which several very opposing currents collided.

Superstition and science
On the one hand, the Baroque era brought about the breakthrough of modern science, the scientific method that still points the way today. The discoveries in the field of astronomy, mathematics, optics and especially mechanics found general recognition and opened the way for a completely new, strictly logically based understanding of nature.

The church was in conflict with physics and astronomy, which found it difficult to say goodbye to literal interpretations of the Bible and had great difficulty in tolerating the ever more convincing, ever more comprehensive worldview of the new science, let alone incorporating it into its theology. The unnecessary dispute between science and religion that broke out in Galileo's time escalated and led to anti-church currents in the Age of Enlightenment.

At the same time, superstition flourished. All kinds of esoteric groups and orders (Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Illuminati and many more), which were dedicated to alchemy, astrology, necromancy and other occult secrets, came before the public or researched in secret. The most abstruse superstition flourished, against which the exact sciences with their, still quite imperfect instruments could do only little. (Cf. "The dark side of the Enlightenment").

Even physical phenomena like magnetism remained a mystery for a long time. In the field of chemistry, knowledge was rudimentary, and medicine remained at the medieval level for many decades, more a playing field for adventurous guesswork than a science. Because the manifestations of life are so complex that the scientific achievements of the 18th century could not deal with them. In big cities, especially Paris, all these currents surged wildly at one another.

Since 1814, common name for the "magnetism animalis" postulated and propagated by F. A. Mesmer, the healing effect of which was supposed to be based on a universal fluid (also transmittable from person to person), for the transmission of which Mesmer initially used magnets, later "magnetized objects" ("baquets"). In addition, he practiced ceremonies of laying on of hands, touching and stroking ("passes"). Mesmerism had many followers at the end of the 18th century and in the 1st half of the 19th century. It had a great influence on the natural philosophy of Romanticism. The term "mesmerizing" (instead of hypnotizing) has survived until today.
(Source: Brockhaus Encyclopedia, 20th edition 1996.)

Against this background, one must see the life story of a doctor who was famous, revered, attacked and even notorious at the time, who wanted to help a completely new healing method, which is still controversial today and with which he achieved considerable success: Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).

Franz Anton Mesmer and his path.
In 1746, Ronald Golon, the Prince-Bishop of Constance, noticed a particularly intelligent twelve-year-old driver during a hunt. It was the son of a hunter. The bishop decided to promote the boy.

So Franz Anton Mesmer went to high school, studied theology and philosophy and finally received his doctorate in medicine in Vienna in 1766.

F A. Mesmer was gifted and very musical. He played several instruments, knew contemporary music and was on friendly terms with musicians, including the Mozart family. A rich marriage with Anna von Eulenschenk, widow of the court chamber councilor Baron von Bosch, made it possible for him to live comfortably in the upper class of Vienna. House concerts, encounters with interesting personalities and contacts to influential circles of the imperial court determined the luxurious everyday life. Mesmer was a formidable personality with an imposing, solemn demeanor who attracted attention everywhere, although his occasional unrestrained temper made him not only friends.

When it became apparent that his wife's fortunes would not be inexhaustible in the lifestyle the couple enjoyed, Mesmer began practicing as a doctor. He followed up on his doctoral thesis, which had dealt with "magnetic cures". First he treated with magnets, then with his hands and with psychological methods. He had sensational success.

His goal was not so much to become rich as a doctor, but rather to bring the healing method he discovered with the help of "animal magnetism" (inaccurately translated as "animal magnetism") to general recognition.

Intrigues forced him to leave Vienna in the winter of 1777/78 and move to Paris, where he became famous, while his wife stayed in Vienna.

In the French Revolution he lost a large part of the fortune he had acquired as a celebrity doctor. In 1792 he had to flee and traveled to various European cities. In Vienna he was imprisoned for a short time as a "supporter of French licentiousness" because he found a few words of apology for the Jacobins and declared that not all French are thieves.

From autumn 1794 he lived in seclusion in various towns on Lake Constance. There he was particularly concerned with alchemy until he died on March 5, 1815 in Meersburg.

The "animal magnetism"
In the 18th century, the use of electricity in medicine was not uncommon. The sick were electrified (forerunners of the electric shock, which is still practiced today) and some experiments were made with magnets - an approach that goes back to Paracelsus (1493-1541).

In the Age of Enlightenment, medicine was still caught up in the deepest Middle Ages. Thousands of people still fell victim to smallpox, the plague, puerperal fever, pneumonia and tuberculosis. In Paris, Louis XVI. (1754-1793, coronation 1774) on the day of his coronation 2,400 scrofulae *). In the ludicrous hope that the power of a consecrated “King by God's grace” could help them. A superstitious custom that English and French kings have had to celebrate for centuries. Shakespeare describes it in the 4th act of Macbeth, and in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment it still flourished in France, against the better knowledge of the doctors.

Science and charlatanism could often not be neatly separated, and a healer who worked successfully with a new, scientifically incomprehensible, neither teachable nor learnable method, had to cause a sensation.

If Mesmer had already achieved spectacular healing successes in Vienna, his level of fame in Paris rose to an unprecedented level. The sensational healing of Jane Miotte, the most famous Parisian fishmonger, made him famous. The rush of those seeking healing from him could hardly be managed. Mesmer's treatments - individually or in groups - were skilful, almost theatrical, so that his magical personality came into its own. While he was adequately rewarded by the rich, he treated the poor for free, which increased his popularity.

Mesmer's eccentric way of handling found many imitators who did not always work seriously and brought “magnetization” into disrepute.

So soon there were again skeptical voices against Mesmer in Paris. In 1784 a royal commission was appointed to scientifically investigate animal magnetism. This commission included leading scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier (chemist, 1743-1794), Benjamin Franklin (American ambassador and scholar, 1706-1790) and Jean Sylvain Bailly (astronomer, 1736-1793).

Despite his efforts in various publications, Mesmer had no convincing theory to offer for his healing method. The royal commission could not find any scientifically verifiable facts in favor of the "magnetic fluids" claimed by Mesmer. So he came under suspicion of charlatanry again in Paris.

The otherwise urbane Mesmer reacted indignantly and emotionally to such criticism and sometimes also became irrelevant. He then spoke of the schemes of the Catholic Church, which accused him of godlessness, or of slander by Freemasons (Mesmer was himself a Freemason), which accused him of occultism.

Today Mesmer would perhaps be referred to as a "spiritual healer" or a "magnetopath"; Terms that are rather vague and find little favor with conventional medical practitioners. He probably had strong healing powers. Presumably, however, his successes were also based on suggestion. Today, Franz Anton Mesmer is seen as a forerunner in hypnotherapy and, since he often treated several patients at the same time, also in group therapy.

In any case, Mesmer was a colorful personality in a turbulent time in which the still young exact sciences wrestled with superstition. He caused a sensation, was admired, fought against, imitated, mocked. His method, whose scientific recognition he could not force, is still not fully understood, because such healing methods are very dependent on the personality of the healer and his exceptional talent.

Final grade:
*) A term used earlier for a complex of symptoms in tubercular children, characterized by swelling of the lymph nodes, inflammation of the eyes, and chronic runny nose.

(1) Schott, Heinz: "Franz Anton Mesmer", Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1983.
(2) Thuillier, Jean: “The discovery of the fire of life”, Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna, 1990.
(3) Titschner, Rudolf: "Franz Anton Mesmer", Verlag der Münchner Drucke, Munich, 1928.