"Mesmerism was, from a philosophical standpoint the most pregnant of all discoveries, even though from the moment it appeared mesmerism propounded more riddles than it solved." -- SCHOPENHAUER.
Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815) was born on the 23rd of May 1733 at the village of Iznang near Switzerland, on the German side of Bodensee (Lake Constance). The parish registers of Iznang are kept in the neighbouring town of Radolfszell. The registers testify to the birth and baptism of Franciscus Antonius, son of Antonius Mesmer and his wife Maria Ursula Mesmer. Mesmer's first name, Franz in German, is sometimes incorrectly given as Friedrich; an error traceable back to the title page of a little book on Mesmer and his work, published the year before his death in 1814. The author was his friend and pupil Carl Wolfart who evidently didn't know Mesmer's first name.
The saga of Franz Anton Mesmer was exceedingly dramatic and extended far beyond his death. It resulted in a veritable age of Mesmerism, the vitality of which took on international interest and fascination that endured for about 140 years. Through envy, malice, greed, and misunderstanding very many of his friends and learned contemporaries regarded Mesmer's practice of magnetism as quackery, even now in the 21st century his theory of animal magnetism is still credited as having laid the foundations of modern hypnosis and suggestive therapy.
The strength of Mesmerism, due mainly to the evidence of the countless indisputable cures that resulted from its use, ensured that Mesmerism came to constitute one of the first international movements of any kind. And its international vivacity was such that the anti-energetic sentiments in the mainstream modern sciences did not succeed in deconstructing it until about 1920. Even so, Mesmerism could not be erased or forgotten left three long shadows of itself, the first in the guise of hypnotism, the second in the guise of psychical research, and the third in the guise of the energetic mysteries. Now in the 21st Century with the modern understandings of physics and the technology available to measure energy fields; much of what Mesmer discovered can be scientifically demonstrated, and Mesmerism is making a comeback into the healing arts.
The thesis that Mesmer submitted for his Doctorate was titled "Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum influxu" (The influence of planets in the cure of diseases). In modern contexts, this document is mistakenly condemned as Mesmer's "astrological thesis". But in his times, the thesis examined magnetic energetic influences that were thought to be universal in nature.
Mesmer observed that the action of the magnetic influences; "consists of alternating effects which may be considered as fluxes of sympathetic systems." The effects manifest "in the human body with properties analogous to the magnet; there are poles, diverse and opposed, which can be communicated, changed, destroyed and reinforced; the phenomena of inclination is also observable." In later summarising his thesis, he indicated "the property of the animal body which renders it susceptible to the magnetic influence of the celestial bodies, and to the reciprocal action of the environmental ones, I felt prompted to name, because the fluids permanent radiance in the fashion of the magnet, animal magnetism." A year later he began practice as a member of the faculty of medicine in what was one of Europe's most advanced medical centres; for the Vienna school was then in its prime, owing to the patronage of Maria Theresia and the leadership of Gerhard van Swieten and Jan Ingenhousz.
Modern historians seldom consider Mesmer as a person within his times but assess him according to modern standards as they later developed. And by those later standards, Mesmer's activities consisted of one strange folly after another.
Detractors often tend to ignore the evidence of Mesmer's academic distinction and instead point with scorn or mockery at the subject of his thesis. Many historians have shown a lack of understanding or historical perspective by, instead of investigating Mesmer's education and early years, have stopped short at being amazed that reputable examiners not only approved the subject of his thesis but also awarded Mesmer his medical degree. In defence of this, Mesmer had no belief whatsoever in astrology or any other preternatural or esoteric theories. Unlike many of the new scientists of the time who still clung to some superstitious beliefs he believed in god and held a purely rational view of the universe and sought natural causes of seemingly mysterious phenomena.
At first sight it certainly appears that Mesmer's thesis subject was provocative. The basic distinction between planets and "fixed stars" however was not always clearly understood and in astrology the influences of the planets were bound up with those of the constellations known as the Ram, the Bull and so on. The names of these groups of stars remain useful for mapping the night sky but have no scientific significance. Their extreme remoteness from the solar system in which earth is a relatively tiny planet undermined the belief in their influence that was prevalent when it was assumed that the earth was the centre of the universe.
Within our solar system, on the other hand, it is obvious that the sun and moon influence the earth through the procession of the seasons, the tides, and in other ways. Thus the question whether or how far the planets can effect individual people would seem not wholly irrational. Mesmer makes no mention of the stars of the astrologers nor does he refer to any particular planets such as Mars, Venus, or Jupiter: it is the forces emanating from the sun and sustaining the planetary system that he deals with. Aware of possible misunderstanding he sought to disarm criticism in a brief Foreword of his thesis. "I shall incur the blame of some people if they infer from the title of my essay that so insignificant a person as I, following the work of the celebrated Mead, am trying to restore the influence of the stars that has long been banished from medical teaching and to recommend it to the favour and study of physicians."
Franz Anton Mesmer was no more a quack than some of the 20th century psychologists who must trace their intellectual roots to this man whose name is now a part of our language. Mesmer's contribution to real science can be distilled to the fact that he understood that illness is not a natural condition. Some kind of blockage of natural forces will inevitably yield stagnation and sickness. An instinctive desire to free the vital forces from restraint kept Mesmer successful as long as his own ability to acknowledge the forces he was using was strong, but the ruling establishment, then as now, more often than not, seems to overwhelm fresh insights concerning the body's spiritual essence, despite the best of intentions.
Mesmer was one of the many physicians who were exploring cures and healings via magnets. Mesmer apparently innovated, designed, and constructed his own version of magnetic plates. By applying magnetised plates to patient's limbs, he affected his first cures in about 1773. Unfortunately, what these plates consisted of has been lost. But there are various magnetic plates designed in Japan during the 1980s, which also produce cures, and the application of weak electromagnetic currents to bone fractures and ulcerous infections has been scientifically and medically confirmed as speeding up healings and cures.
Arriving in Paris in February, 1778, he set up what soon became a very lucrative clinic in the Place Vendôme, a poorer quarter of Paris, and another in the nearby village of Créteil. He then began an elaborate campaign to win recognition of his discovery from France's leading scientific bodies. Helped by some influential converts and an ever increasing throng of patients' who testified that they had been cured of everything from paralysis to what the French then called "Vapeurs," (hot flushes accompanied by nervous fits and hysterical fainting).
Once installed in Paris, Mesmer established himself in the Masonic scene and the occult scene as well; his friends were numerous and included the composer Mozart. He was a Freemason and was instrumental in the formation of The Society of Harmony. Within the Society Mesmer gave lectures and some 300 pupils were educated in the use and methods of Animal Magnetism. Soon there were more than 40 active Societies all over France. He achieved a tremendous success with the public, and with the subscription connected to his name by his pupils, he became a rich man and he was at the height of his influence. In 1785 one of his pupils, in a breach of the secrecy and confidence of his sworn oath, published the doctrines of Mesmer Aphorismes des M. Mesmer, which were supposed to be kept a secret from all but students and members of The Society of Harmony.
Mesmer had designed several versions of a large circular vat (in French, "Baquet"), that were filled with "certain substances" apparently consisting of mixtures of various metals and shards of glass. They served to "collect animating magnetism" and transfer it and its sympathetic qualities to the sympathetic systems of the patients. The theory was that the "certain substances" collected and amplified the magnetic forces, and then via hand-held connectors; the forces were transferred to and re-saturated the sympathetic systems inherent in the bodies of the patients.
The methods that Mesmer utilised to affect the transfer tend to boggle a modern imagination. The patients sat around the vats in communal groups, each holding a metal or glass rod, or a mere copper wire or string of thread, the other end of which was pushed into the substances in the vats. Mesmer erected several circular vats, each about a foot high, and experimented with a number of hand-held "connectors" that served as conduits for the animating and re-animating magnetisms.
There is no doubt that many cures were attained for ailments strictly physical in their cause, but even more cures were obtained regarding illness mental (psychosomatic) in origin. Even Mesmer himself indicated that his "techniques" better dealt with what we today would refer to as conditions psychosomatic in origin. Indeed as a physician, Mesmer usually, and correctly, first sent physically ill patients to other doctors, and otherwise accepted them only if physical remedies were of no effect.
*From his summer chalet at Riedetsweiler, Mesmer located to a cottage on the German side of Lake Constance in Meersburg; at 11 Vor Burggasse, across the lane from The Holy Spirit Hospital. A few years later he died from bladder cancer which had spread to other organs. It is from his friend Justinus Kerner, thanks to whose book, "Franz Anton Mesmer from Swabia, Discoverer of the Animal Magnetism," published in Frankfurt on the Main in 1856, that we know so much about Mesmer's last years.
Justinus tells us that Mesmer died smiling, a strange thing indeed. Strange, too, is the tale of the magnetisable canary which would fly from its cage, always open, and perch on Mesmer's head to sing him awake every morning; perch on the sugar basin while he ate his breakfast and anticipate his need by pecking extra lumps into his coffee cup.
The end of the tale, as Kerner relates it, runs; "One evening Mesmer gave the canary bird an extra affection, the next morning Mesmer lay in repose as though he were still alive, but never again did the canary bird fly on to his head to wake him. It ate no more and sang no more and soon it was found dead in its cage". Far stranger, however, to me at any rate, is the impression I have gathered that when it came to clinical treatment, the discoverer of animal magnetism pinned his whole faith to the therapeutic value of the Mesmeric "crises", setting little or no value on the mesmeric "trance".