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.

The 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Education drives the evolution of our species.