Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) studied medicine in Vienna, which was the medical center of the world at that time. His family lived in borderline poverty in a small town near Lake Constance. From records that still exist, historians have concluded that Mesmer was something of a dilettante. First he attended a theological seminary but never graduated. Later he took a degree as Doctor of Philosophy and began to study law. Records show that he was granted a medical degree, but was not interested in practicing traditional medicine.
In 1770, in the city of Klosters, in eastern Switzerland, not far from the Austrian border, a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Gassner discovered that he possessed the power to heal and began practicing faith cures.
Hundreds of men and women, “possessed of devils,” (according to the belief system of the time), came to Klosters to be healed. Father Gassner, dressed in black robes, would make his appearance before large groups of them and hold up a crucifix, which he lowered to touch each of them in turn.
Mesmer had heard stories of Father Gassner’s healing powers and went to Klosters to see for himself. He was impressed and concluded that some unknown force was at work. He immediately started to work on a theory to explain the cures.
He surmised that the body must have two poles, like a magnet, and must, like a magnet, be emitting an invisible magnetic “fluid.” According to Mesmer, disease was due to some interruption or maladjustment in the flow of this “fluid,” and could be cured by correcting the flow.
Mesmer concluded that only certain people had the gift of being able to control the flow of this mysterious “fluid” and these practitioners had the power to make the fluid flow from themselves into the patient. Furthermore, this could be accomplished indirectly. For example, it could be done by “magnetizing” almost any object, such as a bottle of water. The magnetized object would then pass on the ‘fluid” to anyone who touched it.
Pursuing this line of thought further, Mesmer discovered that it was important that a close interest in and empathy exist between the physician and patient. He called this rapport, French for “harmony” or “connection.” This term is still used in psychoanalytic circles, and describes the relationship in which the doctor has the interest and cooperation of his patient.
Demonstrations of Healing
Mesmer’s theories appeared to work and he carried out many demonstrations of healing. He became a celebrity among the wealthy and was a frequent visitor at the local castles and mansions. His popularity grew, but because most medical men couldn’t find a logical basis for his cures, his colleagues persuaded the Viennese Medical Council to expose him as a fraud.
Mesmer left Vienna for the more liberal environment of Paris. There he soon established himself and became the talk of the town. The wealthy aristocrats of Paris paid Mesmer large fees, but he also treated hundreds of poor peasants for free.
Mesmer used an apparatus which he called a bacquet. The bacquet was an oak tub filled with iron filings and broken glass. Protruding from the wooden top were dozens of bottles with the necks pointing in the direction of the patients. Placed inside the bottles were many iron rods whose purpose was to spray magnetic rays on the subject. These bottles were filled with “magnetic” water.
The assembled patients gathered round the bacquet, each holding the hand of the patient on either side, the whole party forming a kind of “magnetic ring.” Ethereal soft music would play and the lights dimmed. Some of the patients would start singing during these strange seances. Inevitably, a few patients experienced spasms or a “crisis” after which they would emerge from the experience feeling improved in health. Occasionally, young aristocratic women would return for the pleasure of the experience even though they had no medical condition to treat.
Despite widespread skepticism of Mesmer’s methods, he was the first person to draw attention to the fact that mental treatment can have a direct bearing on illness of the body and that the proper use of mesmerism, or hypnosis, can have immense benefit.
Mesmer attracted a circle of disciples who believed his theories and studied their application under his instruction. One of these disciples was Count de Puyseguer, who developed Mesmer’s art and began practicing in Soissons, France.