Franz Anton Mesmer

Overview: In 1775, a German doctor called Frans Mesmer, presented his theory of the use of animal magnetism. He developed a series of mechanisms, and treatments that utilized magnets and his own hands. He redirected the energy of many patients, alleviating their maladies and conducting them to a state of recovery and good health. “The human body emanates radiant heat and other living effluents, especially through their the tips of the fingers, their eyesight, breath, and their thoughts.” His hands became his primary instrument of healing.

Mesmer set in train a branch of fringe medicine which proved to be the motive force for later dynamic psychology. “I named the property of the animal body that renders it liable to the action of heavenly bodies and of the earth animal magnetism.” Material magnetism, first elucidated by William Gilbert (1544-1603), was also considered to cast its subtle influence on the nervous system. Mesmer wrote of animal magnetism “that all bodies were, like the magnet, capable of communicating this magnetic principle; that this fluid penetrated everything and could be stored up and concentrated, like the electric fluid; that it acted at a distance”. Moreover, harnessing its forces could “cure nervous disorders directly and other disorders indirectly”. Mesmer, a Viennese physician, was attempting to provide a scientific explanation for some remarkable cures he had affected by requiring patients to grasp magnetized iron bars. He considered that this procedure resulted in restoring equilibrium between the patient’s state of animal magnetism and that prevailing in the environment.

Mesmer used a type of hypnotism on his patients, but attributed his powers to a hitherto unknown physical/psychic force, ‘animal magnetism’. He described this force or fluid as permeating the universe and suggested that the human nervous system was somehow attuned to it. But an imbalance in animal magnetism inside the body could bring on nervous illness. Mesmer treated his patients directly by channeling animal magnetism through his own body to the affected part of the patient with a kind of laying-on of hands, and indirectly by ‘magnetizing’ iron bars or other objects, by touching them himself and the patient then used these objects to ‘magnetize’ themselves. In pre-revolutionary Paris, Mesmer’s treatment was highly fashionable, particularly with women. Patients were treated in groups, sitting around a large barrel full of water and magnetized iron filings, from which protruded iron rods, which each patient grasped.’ The Energy of Life, Guy Brown (2000)

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