Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 - March 5, 1815), sometimes, albeit incorrectly, referred to as Friedrich Anton Mesmer, was a German physician with an interest in astronomy, who theorised that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called magnétisme animal (animal magnetism) and other spiritual forces often grouped together as mesmerism. Mesmerism is considered to be a form of vitalism and shares features with other vitalist theories that also emphasize the movement of life "energy" through distinct channels in the body. In 1843 James Braid, a Scottish physician proposed the term hypnosis for a technique derived from magnetism but more limited in its claimed effects, and also different in its conception. Mesmer's name is the root of the English verb "mesmerize".
Mesmer was born in the village of Iznang, on the shore of Lake Constance in Swabia, Germany a son of master forester Anton Mesmer (1701 - after 1747) and his wife Maria/Ursula (1701 - 1770), née Michel. After studying at the Jesuit universities of Dillingen and Ingolstadt, he took up the study of medicine at the University of Vienna in 1759. In 1766 he published a doctoral dissertation with the Latin title De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum (On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body), which discussed the influence of the Moon and the planets on the human body and on disease. This was not medical astrology - relying largely on Newton's theory of the tides - Mesmer expounded on certain tides in the human body that might be accounted for by the movements of the sun and moon. Evidence assembled by Frank A. Pattie suggests that Mesmer plagiarized his dissertation from a work by Richard Mead, an eminent English physician and Newton's friend. That said, in Mesmer's day doctoral theses were not expected to be original.
In January 1768, Mesmer married Anna Maria von Posch, a wealthy widow, and established himself as a physician in the Austrian capital Vienna. In the summers he lived on a splendid estate and became a patron of the arts. In 1768, when court intrigue prevented the performance of La Finta Semplice for which a twelve-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had composed 500 pages of music, Mesmer is said to have arranged a performance in his garden of Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne, a one-act opera, though Mozart's biographer Nissen has stated that there is no proof that this performance actually took place. Mozart later immortalized his former patron by including a comedic reference to Mesmer in his opera Così fan tutte..
The advent of animal magnetism
In 1774, Mesmer produced an "artificial tide" in a patient by having her swallow a preparation containing iron, and then attaching magnets to various parts of her body. She reported feeling streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body and was relieved of her symptoms for several hours. Mesmer did not believe that the magnets had achieved the cure on their own. He felt that he had contributed animal magnetism, which had accumulated in his work, to her. He soon stopped using magnets as a part of his treatment.
In July 1775, Mesmer traveled to the shores of Lake Constance, his homeland, where he performed several sensational cures closely following in Gassner's footsteps. Gassner was a priest and healer, and also a Swabian. This period of Mesmer's life culminated in his being called to Munich by the Prince-Elector and his nomination as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.
In 1775, Mesmer was invited to give his opinion before the Munich Academy of Sciences on the exorcisms carried out by Johann Joseph Gassner. Mesmer said that while Gassner was sincere in his beliefs, his cures were because he possessed a high degree of animal magnetism. This confrontation between Mesmer's secular ideas and Gassner's religious beliefs marked the end of Gassner's career as well as, according to Henri Ellenberger, the emergence of dynamic psychiatry.
The scandal that followed Mesmer's attempt to treat the blindness of an 18-year-old musician, Maria Theresia Paradis, led him to leave Vienna in 1777. Miss Paradis had been blind from the age of four. Under Mesmer's care her sight was partially restored. Her parents were at first overhelmingly grateful; but later, they insisted that Mesmer cease treating her. Bitter disputes followed, and the patient's vision again deteriorated. The following year Mesmer moved to Paris, rented an apartment in a part of the city preferred by the wealthy and powerful, and established a medical practice. Paris soon divided into those who thought he was a charlatan who had been forced to flee from Vienna and those who thought he had made a great discovery.
In his first years in Paris, Mesmer tried and failed to get either the Royal Academy of Sciences or the Royal Society of Medicine to provide official approval for his doctrines. He gained at least one influential disciple in a physician of high professional and social standing in Charles d'Eslon private physician to the Count d'Artois, one of the King's brothers. In 1779, with d'Eslon's encouragement, Mesmer wrote an 88-page book Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal, to which he appended his famous 27 Propositions. These propositions outlined his theory at that time.
According to d'Eslon, Mesmer understood health as the free flow of the process of life through thousands of channels in our bodies. Illness was caused by obstacles to this flow. Overcoming these obstacles and restoring flow produced crises, which restored health. When Nature failed to do this spontaneously, contact with a conductor of animal magnetism was a necessary and sufficient remedy. Mesmer aimed to aid or provoke the efforts of Nature. To cure an insane person, for example, involved causing a fit of madness. The advantage of magnetism involved accelerating such crises without danger.
Mesmer treated patients both individually and in groups. With individuals he would sit in front of his patient with his knees touching the patient's knees, pressing the patient's thumbs in his hands, looking fixedly into the patient's eyes. Mesmer made "passes", moving his hands from patients' shoulders down along their arms. He then pressed his fingers on the patient's hypochondrium region (the area below the diaphragm), sometimes holding his hands there for hours. Many patients felt peculiar sensations or had convulsions that were regarded as crises and supposed to bring about the cure. Mesmer would often conclude his treatments by playing some music on a glass armonica.
By 1780 Mesmer had more patients than he could treat individually and he established a collective treatment known as the "baquet". An English physician who observed Mesmer described the treatment as follows:
In the middle of the room is placed a vessel of about a foot and a half high which is called here a "baquet". It is so large that twenty people can easily sit round it; near the edge of the lid which covers it, there are holes pierced corresponding to the number of persons who are to surround it; into these holes are introduced iron rods, bent at right angles outwards, and of different heights, so as to answer to the part of the body to which they are to be applied. Besides these rods, there is a rope which communicates between the baquet and one of the patients, and from him is carried to another, and so on the whole round. The most sensible effects are produced on the approach of Mesmer, who is said to convey the fluid by certain motions of his hands or eyes, without touching the person. I have talked with several who have witnessed these effects, who have convulsions occasioned and removed by a movement of the hand...
In 1784, without Mesmer requesting it, King Louis XVI appointed four members of the Faculty of Medicine as commissioners to investigate animal magnetism as practiced by d'Eslon. At the request of these commissioners the King appointed five additional commissioners from the Royal Academy of Sciences. These included the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, the physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly, and the American ambassador Benjamin Franklin.
It ought to be said a that when in march 1784 Breteuil, minister at the Maison du Roi, set up Royal Commissions to investigate the claims of animal magnetism, it is likely that he was in part actuated by other motives that those which had led d'Eslon to push the matter. Mesmer's Societies of Harmony had "a reputation for democracy: persons of different ranks met there on terms of equality". 'The time has come for the revolution which France needs, but to operate in public could condemn it to failure," said Bergasse, a disciple of Mesmer - "one has to unite people under the pretext of physical experiments, in reality however for the purpose of the overthrow of the tyranny". Mesmer himself was not politically active, but some feature of his doctrine could be given a political gloss, especially his frequent talk of his patients "need to achieve "harmony" both with other individuals and with universe at large." "Thus that negative rapport of the commissions suited the government very well"(Gauld - 1995)
The commission conducted a series of experiments aimed, not at determining whether Mesmer's treatment worked, but whether he had discovered a new physical fluid. The commission concluded that there was no evidence for such a fluid. Whatever benefit the treatment produced was attributed to "imagination".
As said, the investigation of the commission was not conducted on Mesmer himself, but on his work according to d'Eslon. Many affirmed that d'Eslon didn't know completely the true system of Mesmer.
Even Mesmer was indignant because the commissioners had not come to him with their inquiries, but had gone to the "traitor" D'Eslon. Later, however, this circumstance proved fortunate for Mesmer: when the Public Ministry, on the basis of the commissioners' report, decided to prohibit to physicians the practice of animal magnetism, Bergasse succeeded in his efforts to have the interdiction lifted by Parliament-the highest judicial instance-on a legal technicality: the commissioners' report concerned D'Eslon's, not Mesmer's practice.
The reports did not harm the development of the magnetic movement. On the opposite, the reports acted as a publicity stunt for the magnetic movement. This effect was enhanced by the dissenting report of Jussieu, and by the fact that in the same year (1784) the marques of Puysegur, one of the most faithful Mesmer's disciples, had made new discoveries. He had discovered an until then unknown state of consciousness, that he called "magnetic sleep". This phenomena grabbed new attention. Instead, therefore, of settling the disputed point as to the existence or nonexistence of animal magnetism, the reports only gave the subject an additional interest. Interest in animal magnetism was sustained in France and spread therefore even to many other countries during the ensuing decades and the cause of magnetism was embraced by a sizeable number of new supporters. The Societe de I'Harmonie developed its activities and similar societies were founded in various French cities. The Harmony Society boasted booming branches in Strasbourg (the Marquis of Puysegur), Chartres, Lyon (Jean-Baptise Wuillermoz), Amiens, Narbonne, Malta, San Domingo, and so on. It seems probable that the original members of the Society regarded their engagement to Mesmer at lasting only until one hundred members had each paid him hundred louis. During the course of 1784, this target was exceeded. Several influential members thought they were now totally free to teach and practice and (even worse for Mesmer) to modify what they had learned.
It was, mostly due to these internecine struggles of an economic nature which plagued the Harmony Society, that Mesmer, who felt also the figures recorded in its accounting books were being intentionally tampered with, decided to settle for 20000 francs and leave the country instead of having to worry about the internal fight in the society. He made this decision in 1785, boosted by a hefty sum he was able to carry along. Once he was gone, his opponents went on a rampage, causing Mesmer to spend a lot of time writing retorting libels which targeted their accusations. In 1785 Mesmer left Paris. In 1790 he was in Vienna again to settle the estate of his deceased wife Maria Anna. When he sold his house in Vienna in 1801 he was in Paris. The creator of mesmerism sympathized with many of the ideas the revolution had highlighted. The consequence thereof is that he had to forego the plan of settling back in Wien, since he was viewed as politically suspect, and he retraced his steps to Paris several times. In 1802, while in that city again, he asked for and was awarded a yearly allowance of 3000 florins as compensation for the money he had lost in the Revolution. In 1803, some of his friends solicited him to open up a new establishment devoted to the implementation of magnetic treatments, but Mesmer turned down their request. The war had consigned him to inaction; several friends of his had died, and he decided instead to take up residence in Switzerland. In 1809, he penned a letter to one of his friends, wherein he mentioned to him that he was spending a happy life of quiet and anonymity, untroubled by problems or by neighbours and people who could recognize him. He added in that missive, though, that he was still practicing his Art, and was always visited by plentiful patients, many of whom he would treat free of charge.
In the meantime, the Academy of Berlin formally acknowledged the validity of Mesmer's ideas and dispatched Prof. Wolfart to him with a view to inviting him to move to Berlin in Germany. However, Mesmer, who was by then an old man, was no longer keen to travel. Prof. Wolfart accordingly collected his memories, all the way until Mesmer met his death in Switzerland, on 5 March 1815.
Main article: Animal magnetism
The rapid spread of Animal Magnetism through Europe gave rise to further intense discussions on the origin of the phenomena. In France three different schools of thought emerged. They received different names: the fluidic one, the spiritualistic one (Chevalier de Barberin), and the experimentalist one (De Puysegur). Beside them, one of the branches of Animal Magnetism that rose after Mesmer was called the branch of the "Imaginationists" that put importance on the power of the "imagination". Abbe Faria, an Indo-Portuguese monk in Paris, emphasized that "nothing comes from the magnetizer; everything comes from the subject and takes place in his imagination i.e., autosuggestion generated from within the mind".
De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum (Über den Einfluss der Gestirne auf den menschlichen Körper; "The Influence of the Planets on the Human Body" / original language: Latin) (1766).
Sendschreiben an einen auswärtigen Arzt über die Magnetkur ("Circulatory letter to a foreign physician about the magnetic cure" / original language: German) (1775).
Mesmerismus oder System der Wechsel-beziehungen. Theorie und Andwendungen des tierischen Magnetismus ("Mesmerism or the system of inter-relations. Theory and applications of animal magnetism" / original language: German) (1814).
Among Mesmer's followers was Armand-Marc-Jacques Chastenet, Marquis de Puységur (1751-1825), who discovered induced or artificial somnambulism.
Mesmer is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe's short story A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.
In his early writings, F. Anton Mesmer used a way of exposing his ideas very similar to the way of writing of the ancient alchemists. His way of thinking shows clearly the influence of the alchemists' ideas. He sees three basic elements: God, Energy (movement), Matter (on the top left in the guide), analog to Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, (Soul, spirit and body) of the alchemists. Some of his writings used therefore symbols to represent these and other meaningful concepts. He used over 100 symbols in a text sometimes, making it difficult, if not impossible, to read without a guide to the symbols. The idea behind it is that images are the basis for a true understanding while instead words can lead to many different and opposite meanings.
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