Rise And Fall Of Franz Mesmer
Theory Of Animal Magnetism

It's often assumed that Franz Mesmer was responsible for the discovery of hypnosis. Franz Anton Mesmer, 1734-1815, whose name gave the word "Mesmerism" to the English language, was a Viennese physician who undoubtedly did hypnotize many of his subjects. It should however be noted that no actual Western concept or understanding of hypnosis existed at the time.

Franz Mesmer & Animal Magnetism

Mesmer actually attributed his therapeutic successes to a physical agency which he called animal magnetism. He saw this as a "fluid" or a sort of psychic ether which he believed existed throughout the universe and which also permeated the human central nervous system.

He believed that various physical and nervous illnesses were the result of an imbalance between the body's naturally occurring animal magnetism and that which existed throughout the universe as a whole, and that this imbalance could be realigned through human contact.

He attempted to do this by inducing what would now be thought of as something like a hypnotic trance and then by channelling magnetism through his own body to that of the patient's, either by directly applying his hands to the relevant part of the body or by having the patient hold some object, such as an iron bar, which he had previously magnetized by direct contact through himself.

Mesmer's theories were largely rejected by scientists of the time, however he did have many patients who claimed that his therapeutic practices had worked, and he drew many disciples to his cause. His reputation was considerably boosted again when an aristocrat suffering from ongoing cramps who had been examined by several doctors without success, was referred to Mesmer as a "last resort".

Mesmer went to the aristocrat's estate taking several large magnets with him, believing that animal magnetism and the metallic kind were the same. For several days nothing happened and no cure was evident. Mesmer, however, believed strongly in his treatment and persisted, and soon positive results became apparent. By holding and magnetizing the patient's foot, Mesmer noticed that the muscular spasms decreased, and that by doing the same with the hand they started again.

This indicated to Mesmer the nature of his patient's magnetic or fluidic "imbalance", and by getting the "fluids" to flow back and forth in a certain sequence and over a period of time, the spasms actually ceased altogether.

The news soon got out and Franz Mesmer became the toast of Viennese Society. He later went on to develop a kind of apparatus to distribute magnetism to groups of patients suffering from various ills and by many accounts went on to have remarkable success.

He went to Paris and began to instruct pupils in his methods and eventually established clinics in many major cities. Louis XVI offered him a lifetime pension if he would agree to remain in France but also stipulated that Mesmer should allow an independent commission to examine his claims and methods beforehand. Mesmer took umbrage to this and refused.

The King was affronted by Mesmer's reaction, and thus began his downfall, albeit a relatively slow and gentle one. Subsequent inquiries had concluded - most likely correctly - that Mesmer's successes were due more to his powers of suggestion and ability to inspire confidence than to anything else - he was possessed of a vivid imagination and a strong personality - and this, in concert with the King's disapproval, basically cooked his goose.

As an indirect consequence of the French Revolution Franz Mesmer lost most of his money and an attempt to set up a new clinic in Vienna was stopped by the police who obliged him to leave the country. By this time anyway he was widely regarded as a crank, and all this had damaged his exuberant self confidence - which had undoubtedly been a major factor in his success - and finally Franz Mesmer retired into relative obscurity. He died in 1815, just before his 80th birthday.

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