Mesmer’s Magnetic Crackpottery

For thousands of years, wonder and magic were associated with the mysterious forces exerted by lodestones. Paracelsus (1493–1543), a physician and alchemist reasoned that since magnets have the power to attract iron, perhaps they can also attract diseases and leach them from the body.

MesmerThe development in eighteenth century England of carbon-steel permanent magnets more powerful than lodestones brought renewed interest in the possible healing powers of magnets, and among those interested was Maximilian Hell, a professor of astronomy at the University of Vienna. Hell claimed several cures using steel magnets, but he was rapidly eclipsed by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a friend who borrowed his magnets to treat a young woman suffering from a severe mental illness.

Mesmer’s success with the “magnets from Hell” led directly to the widespread promotion of his theory of “Animal Magnetism (AM).” Although he first used actual magnets, he later found he could “magnetize” virtually anything – paper, wood, leather, water – and produce the same effect on patients. He concluded that the AM resided in himself, the various materials simply aiding the flow of the “universal fluid” between him and the patients.

In 1784 Mesmer sought the French government approval of his practice of a treatment based on AM, which he considered a physical force of supreme interest to the sciences. He had only to point a finger toward his patient to induce a therapeutic “crisis,” such as this one: “Bodies would begin to shake, arms and legs move violently and involuntarily, teeth chatter loudly. Patients would grimace, groan, babble, scream, faint, and fall unconscious.” With repeated provocation, so Mesmer claimed, the attacks would gradually become less severe and eventually disappear, and recovery would follow.

Possibly in response to the turmoil generated by AM, the French King Louis XVI appointed a commission to investigate the practice. The four commissioners appointed five additional commissioners including the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, and Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry. Avoiding a blind alley taken by several other researchers and funding groups, they rejected Mesmer’s demand that they focus on cures.1 The commissioners considered that their first duty was to find out whether AM existed; the question of its utility could be taken up only after the question of its existence had been answered affirmatively.

  1. Although Mesmer might not have known of the placebo effect, his practice clearly showed him the power of this effect. Thus his insistence on cures.

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