The Contributions & Influence of Mesmer

To 19th and 20th Century Alternative and Conventional Therapies

The full extent of the contribution and influence of the work of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) will undoubtedly never be acknowledged or recognised by students of most modern complementary, alternative, and conventional therapies. However, the founders and influential contributors to many of those same therapies were inspired by his research that explored many of the ways the subtle natural energy fields permeating and surrounding the human body may be influenced in order to bring about healing and health.

Mesmer’s contributions are contemporary with the beginnings of the electrical era. The late 18th century and early 19th was the period when the fundamentals of magnetism and electricity were being articulated and elaborated into a systematic form for practical use and application. Healers in a number of ancient cultures had already discovered, in earlier centuries, that magnets were able to influence the body-mind and its moods. While the early physical scientists were engaged in experimentation with the properties of magnet fields, parallel research was being conducted in magnet healing therapy and its effect on the vital energy field surrounding the human body.

The results achieved with magnetised metal plates in therapeutic treatment were particularly fruitful in the hands of those who were also charismatic or ‘hands on’ healers. They found that the magnets enhanced the healing effects of their therapeutic approach. During the 1770’s Mesmer, while practicing medicine in Vienna responded to the experience of a Jesuit priest who had developed techniques for use of magnets in healing. Mesmer, who already accepted the Paracelsian concept that imbalanced subtle energy fields were one of the causes of illness, also concluded that these fields were magnetic in nature. This view was reached as a result of the positive response of his patients to treatment with magnets.

Although Mesmer gave the term ‘animal magnetism’ to the effect on the subtle fields surrounding human and animal bodies, his students called it ‘Mesmerism’. The response to Mesmer, in an increasingly rational materialist era, was extremely polarised (just like magnets!). There were those who were completely taken up with his charisma and dramatic tactics for displaying the effects of magnetic therapy and tried them out. Then there was the opposition of the scientific community which focused on the drama and not on the objective principles that Mesmer had employed to achieve positive results.
The consequence was that for a period of time Mesmer enjoyed a great popularity and his theatrical approach attracted many people to his Paris healing saloon from all over Europe and even North America. Ultimately, the French Academy of Sciences conducted a study of Mesmerism. It concluded that there was no such thing as subtle magnetic fluid that surrounded the human body and that Mesmer’s results could be achieved by other means.

Debunking the Unconventional

It should be noted that the ability to achieve a result ‘by other means’ does not prove that Mesmer’s therapeutic approach was not in fact a significant causal factor in producing the curative results he was achieving. This fallacy in logic is the great failure of most scientific and rationalist ‘debunkers’ of the past 300 years. However it is the time worn method for discrediting those with whom conventionalists feel uncomfortable. The near destruction of the reputation of the English Bristol Cancer Clinic or the supposed ‘scientific survey’ of 1998, as to the effects of silicone breast implants on connective tissue, are only two of the many recent examples of simplistic debunking we have experienced in the last few years.

Another major way of discrediting those with whom we disagree, or are doing something that is strange and different is to use incisive and vicious humour to play upon the prurient or religious morality of the day to debase the outer form of a strange or new practice. In this way the public is steered away from examination of the meaningful and worthwhile inner content that may be derived from new approaches to healing, etc. This was the case with Charles Mackay’s 1843 book ‘Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ which included an emotive description of a group treatment session by Mesmer. The book was published at a time when Mesmerism was exerting a strong influence on the alternative therapies and practitioners that were emerging throughout Europe and North America. At this point in time the threatened conventional ‘Heroic blood letting medicine’ had not yet taken on board many of the more gentle methods of the ‘quacks’ and non conventionalists, which it was later to do, in order to regain the confidence of the public. That was yet to happen in the period from the 1860’s to 1900.

The Rise of Mesmerism from the Ashes

Meanwhile the report of the French Academy resulted in negative publicity for Mesmer’s reputation and after a time he left France and died in near obscurity. However, word of his work spread and resulted in influencing many who wanted to practice alternative forms of therapeutics that were less abusive than the massive blood lettings, emetics, and poisonous dosages of medicines as practiced by conventional ‘Heroic Medicine”

What is the legacy of Mesmer?

He demonstrated to the public:

  • That the human body and its vital energy field could be ‘magnetised’ (i.e. influenced); not only with magnets but by touch.

* That the mind and emotions of a patient could also be ‘magnetised’, ie. hypnotised.
* That suggestion was a powerful tool in healing.
* That even cold water affects the ‘electrical fluid’, ie the subtle energy field that surrounds and permeates the human body
* That the ‘energy field’ of a person who is ‘positive’ can charge up the ‘energy field’ of a person who is ‘negative’
* That group dynamics can lead to the charging of the ‘electric fluid’ that surrounds each individual person within the group.

In passing it is worthy to note that, currently, except for the cold water applications, multinational business organisations pay thousands of pounds a week to professional trainers who utilise modern versions of all of the above Mesmeric techniques to train their staffs in self and group awareness; personal and group goal setting; etc.

It is seldom that people to whom we accord the status of pioneer truly invent something totally new. Rather, they bring together in a new way and in a new context previously separated activities and practices which have been repeated many times in previous years, centuries, and millennia. This was true of Mesmer, just as it was of Newton, the Islamic physicians – Avicenna , Galen, Hippocrates, etc. The result is to provide the people of their era with a new way of exploring an aspect of human activity or behaviour that was not previously available. The publicity and showmanship tactics of Mesmer introduced to the emerging 19th century middle class the possibility of alternative healing methods which were far more gentle than mainstream ‘Heroic Medicine’.

Furthermore, Mesmeric concepts and practices evolved within the context of an era when science was experimenting with magnetic induction by stroking non-magnetic iron with natural magnetic lodestone. It was also discovered that electric fields could be induced by moving magnets into and out of coils of wire and that electricity and magnetism were reversible. Since people could also be affected by magnets; might they too have an invisible field surrounding them as well? It was only natural that those who were healers and/or were charismatic would apply these concepts to the human energy field which was so tangibly real for them in their own daily lives and experience. The founders of: Osteopathy, Christian Science, Hypnotherapy, and many other19th and 20th century therapies studied and utilised the concepts of Mesmerism in their work as well. It is only now in the 21st century that conventional science is at the early stages of investigating and appreciating the role of bio-magnetic influences in the function and operation of the body-mind.
In regard to the report on Mesmer’s methods to the French Academy of Sciences and Medicine, Brian Inglis makes the following comments:

“There could be no question of collusion, as had been suggested; the investigators had to admit the patients really were under the control of the magnetiser. Nor did they dispute that the patients were often cured of their symptoms by the use of the technique. But the convulsions might be dangerous; in any case, what they had been called upon to investigate was not whether the method produced cures but whether, if it did, the cures were produced by animal magnetism. Their answer was an unequivocal negative. It was imagination, they decided, which was responsible for the cures. Animal magnetism ‘being non-existent can have no salubrious effects.’

“Patients occasionally reacted to a gesture from the magnetiser, Jussieu (the noted French Botanist and member of the investigating team) had observed, even when they did not seem him. It followed he felt, that some force other than the imagination must be involved. He was no more inclined than his colleagues to accept Mesmer’s hypothesis; but he was honest enough to argue, in a minority report that there must be some unexplained force ‘which is exercised by man on man’. In their determination to discredit animal magnetism, however, the other commissioners rejected his finding. (Inglis 1979 p36)

History repeats itself: In February 1998 a study was made public which indicated that women who have breast implants have no more connective tissue problems than those who have not had the procedure performed on them. What the study did not address was the long-term toxic effects of silicone seepage into the body systems and organs. It should be remembered that a significant majority of contemporary research is initiated, subsidised, or funded by the manufacturer of the product, drug, or procedure in question. The failure to address the real issues and ask questions truly relevant to the problem occurs all too frequently to be accidental. Additionally, one can only conjecture: What if men had breast implants, would the questions asked and result of the study been the same?

Armstrong, D & Metzger Armstrong, E 1991The Great American Medicine Show. Prentice Hall: N.Y.
Colquhoun, John, C 1836 Isis Revelata: An Inquiry into the Origin, Progress, and present State of
Animal Magnetism, Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart
Inglis, Brian 1979 Natural Medicine. Collins: London
Wood, M 1992 The Magical Staff. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley


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