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.

Mesmer1 2108477The 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.

In one experiment, a woman who claimed that she experienced warmth in every part of her body that received magnetism, was blindfolded. The parts of her body which were exposed to magnetism without her knowledge did not respond, but when she was made to believe that she was being magnetized while blindfolded, she felt the usual sensations, although nothing was being done to her. From this study it was concluded that imagination controlled these sensations. In another experiment, the commission sought to test the power of imagination in the production of convulsions. A particularly susceptible subject was blindfolded and asked to touch four trees in succession, one of which had supposedly been charged with AM. At the fourth tree, 24 feet from the magnetized one, he fell in a convulsion, losing consciousness. Similarly, several non-magnetized cups were presented in succession to another subject. The second cup agitated her somewhat and the fourth provoked a crisis. She was calmed afterwards by drinking from an additional cup that had, in fact, been magnetized. From their series of experimental findings the commission concluded that

“imagination without magnetism produces convulsions and … magnetism without imagination produces nothing” and “that this fluid without existence is consequently without utility.”

The report of the scientific commission on AM damaged Mesmer’s reputation and he eventually faded from public view. However, “magnetization” persisted in various forms. Many early magnetizers evolved into students of hypnosis and developed various forms of hypnotherapy.1 Daniel David Palmer, who started as a magnetizer, developed chiropractic later. Others focused on hand gestures without actual touch, an approach recently reborn as therapeutic touch. Mary Baker Eddy was “cured” by a magnetizer, but she later became convinced that cures could best be achieved through prayer, and founded Christian Science.

  1. The trance induced in many of Mesmer’s patients is thought to be what is now called a hypnotic trance, and most dictionaries today list mesmerism as a synonym for hypnotism.

In the twentieth century, materials scientists and engineers developed stronger and stronger permanent magnets – alnico magnets in the 1930s, ferrite (ceramic) magnets in the 1950s, and rare-Earth magnets in the 1970s and 1980s. The latest rare-Earth magnets, neodymium-iron-boron, are over a hundred times more powerful than the steel magnets available in the nineteenth century. Both ferrite magnets and the latest “neo” magnets have had a tremendous impact on modern technology, but they have also rejuvenated interest in the use of permanent magnets for magnetic therapy. Unlike earlier magnetic materials such as steel and alnico, the new magnets have great resistance to demagnetization. While earlier magnets had to be long to avoid being demagnetized by the internal fields produced by the poles at the ends, new magnets can be mounted in a variety of thin products that can be applied to the body with the magnetic field emanating from the surface.

Magnetic products are typically of two kinds: those whose north and south poles alternate, and those with only one pole facing out. Many magnetic therapy products have alternating arrays of north and south poles facing the patient. Some have detailed explanations of why a circular array of poles is optimal, while others offer poles in checkerboard or triangular arrays. Nikken, the Japan-based firm that has used a multilevel marketing scheme to expand from an annual business in the US of $3 million in 1989 to $210 million in 2010, primarily offers products with alternating poles.1

The difference between such multipolar and unipolar magnetic devices is the “reach” of the magnetic field. The field from even unipolar magnets decreases very rapidly with increasing distance from the magnet, but the field from multipolar magnets decreases much more rapidly. If multipolar magnets really have any effects on the human body, they will be limited to depths of penetration of only a few millimeters.2

  1. The annual global expenditure on magnet therapy is now over a billion dollars.
  2. Many refrigerator magnets are multipolar, which limits the thickness of paper they can hold to the refrigerator, but also limits the damage they can do to nearby credit and ATM cards.

Most promoters of magnetic therapy recognize the need for offering some plausible explanation. The broadest explanation has been presented by Kyochi Nakagawa, MD, of Japan, who claims that many of our modern ills result from “Magnetic Field Deficiency Syndrome.” The Earth’s magnetic field is known to have decreased about 6% since 1830, and indirect evidence suggests that it may have decreased as much as 30% over the last millennium. He argues that magnetic therapy simply provides some of the magnetic field that the Earth has lost.

That was Dr. Nakagawa’s argument. Here are two of mine.

  1. Over the past 10,000 years (the last Ice Age), the Earth temperature has risen considerably, and this may be the cause of “our modern ills.” Maybe we are suffering from “Ice Deficiency Syndrome,” and we need to put ice cubes around our neck and ankles!
  2. Perhaps due to the eradication of malaria in most parts of the world, many of “our modern ills” result from “Mosquito Deficiency Syndrome.” To cure this, we may have to take a sizable dose of mosquito larva every day!

If your “explanation” is not based on scientific evidence, any nonsensical statement, such as Nakagawa’s or any other like the two given above, can be an “explanation!”

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