By Hendrik Baird

Let’s be honest, hypnosis does not have a glorious history. It is steeped in myth, witchcraft and hysteria. Stage hypnotists have not contributed to the good standing of hypnosis either, and so scientific researchers have neglected studying it until quite recently. This history has had a direct effect on how hypnosis is perceived today, even though scientific research is proving hypnosis to be worth serious consideration when dealing with a myriad of problems.

Modern hypnosis started with a man called Franz Mesmer (1734 – 1815). He was a physician who lived in Vienna. At university he studied the influence of the planets on the human body. Isaac Newton had proposed that ocean tides result from the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon, and Mesmer took this idea further by proposing that the sun and moon had an effect on the tides in the human body and also on diseases.

His theory was that all living beings have a magnetic fluid, something similar to electricity, which ran through their bodies. (At the time, it was usual to speak of energy as being ‘fluid’.) He further believed that this fluid could be transferred between people and even to inanimate objects. Mesmer believed that to be healthy meant that this magnetic fluid had to be in balance. He further believed he could manipulate this ‘fluidum’ by using magnets.

To prove this theory, he had a patient who was suffering from ‘hysteria’ swallow a concoction which contained some iron. He then used magnets which he attached all over her body. She was cured for several hours and Mesmer called it ‘animal magnetism’, stating that this was in fact what had cured her. Later he would abandon the magnets because he himself was of such a strong magnetic force that he could simply lay his hands on a patient in order to cure them!

Mesmer became quite the talk of the town. He married a wealthy widow and mixed with the Viennese elite. He even entertained composers Joseph Haydn and Mozart. In his medical practice he cured people who came from far and wide. When he failed to cure the blind piano prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis in 1777, trouble started brewing and he left Vienna to settle in Paris, where he continued his medical practice, mainly for rich yet bored and sick aristocrats. He saw as many as 200 patients per day, which meant he had trouble finding the time to treat them all.

Because Mesmer believed animal magnetism could be transferred between animate and inanimate objects, he built something he called a baquet. In effect it was a large wooden tub, which he filled with iron filings, glass bottles and water. He then proceeded to magnetise the baquet. He stuck iron rods into the top of the tubs, instructing patients to press these rods to the parts of their bodies that needed healing.

Old Mesmer proved himself to be quite the showman, because he then created a salon for his baquet, which was richly decorated with the lighting turned low, creating a mysterious effect. There were mirrors hung on the walls and a “profound silence was observed”. He burned incense and had someone play a glass harmonica, creating the sounds of tinkling glass, which wafted through the salon. His patients sat around the baquet, linking their hands, pressing the steel rods to their bodies and then they proceeded to get mesmerized, which supposedly led to their healing.

Mesmer himself was dressed almost like a wizard, wearing a long purple robe and waving a magnetized wand at his patients. It must have been a wondrous experience for his mostly female patients, who proceeded to laugh or weep, or have violent convulsions, became hysterical, seized with catalepsy, palpitations of the heart, perspiration or other bodily disturbances. “The method was supposed to provoke in the sick person exactly the kind of action beneficial to [their] recovery.” When this happened, they were taken to a separate crisis room. Mesmer then disappeared into this room with the lady in question, and who knows what he did in there, because it certainly raised some eyebrows!

Mesmer was probably the first person to use self-hypnosis, as it was reported by a colleague of his that Mesmer had cured himself of a condition described as “the blockage in the lower part of his body”. He subsequently trained a number of people how to use his methods and became quite the celebrity.

It wasn’t long before King Louis XVI came to hear of Mesmer’s antics, as his wife Marie Antoinette had attended some of Mesmer’s sessions. The King ordered a commission of inquiry, which included visiting American diplomat Benjamin Franklin. The commission concluded that there was no such thing as ‘fluidum’ and Mesmer was forced to leave Paris.

He traveled all over Europe, lived in Switzerland for some years and eventually he passing away in 1815 in a town called Meersburg in Germany.

Mesmerism however died not die with Mesmer, in fact it thrived, mainly because of the scholarship of Mesmer’s ardent student, Marquis de Chastenet de Puységur, who became intrigued by his own patients’ suggestibility. But it was theologian-philosopher-scientist Abbé Faria who published the book Of the Cause Of Lucid Sleep or Study of the Nature of Man in which he connected the patient’s will, auto-suggestion, and the power of mind over body to ‘lucid sleep’. He also criticized “the futility of assumption of a magnetic fluid”.

Mainly a forgotten name in the history of hypnosis, “Abbé Faria was a professor of theology and philosophy; [and] his works also referenced metaphysics and physiology”. He is indeed the father of modern hypnotism. Interestingly, he had wanted to write three volumes about suggestion, but tragically died on the day his first volume was published. This book was rediscovered in 1909 by psychiatrist Rajendra Hegde and he commissioned an English translation, which was only completed in 2004!

It was surgeon James Braid who coined the term ‘hypnosis’, which is an unfortunate term, as the Greek word hypnos means sleep, and of course hypnosis is anything but sleep.

And then there is the story of a Scottish surgeon by the name of James Esdaile. In 1830, at the age of 22, he received his medical qualification in Edinburg. He was of fragile health, with his lungs diagnosed as ‘delicate’, and so he followed medical opinion to live in a warmer climate so as to cure this temporary medical condition. He chose India, being appointed in the service of the East India Company. He was eventually in charge of the Hooghly Hospital near Calcutta. He studied the literature on mesmerism and experimented with this technique, which led to him being discredited by his peers, but he pressed on, determined that animal magnetism was the way to go.

Esdaile reported his many successful surgery cases using mesmerism in the local newspapers, much to the chagrin of mainstream medical practitioners of the time. The government did not directly support him either, “nevertheless, it did find the matter to be of sufficient importance to warrant a further prosecution of the enquiry, thus enabling Esdaile to continue his interesting experiments under the most favourable and promising circumstances by placing him for one year in charge of a small experimental hospital in some favourable situation in Calcutta”. Esdaile was required to open this “experimental mesmeric hospital” to the public, and visitors were nominated who had to “inspect Dr Esdaile’s proceedings without exercising any interference”.

It was therefore Esdaile who thus opened the field of scientific research and he should be credited as such, although he still believed in animal magnetism and had to endure much criticism, including the fact that he worked with the ‘natives’. “Esdaile saw the necessity to treat other races in order to gain proof that mesmerism was universally effective and no mere chimera put on by the ‘natives’.” Today we still refer to a very deep state of hypnosis under which operations can be performed as the Esdaile State.

Interestingly, celebrated Afrikaans poet Eugene Marais, who studied it in London and in Europe, first brought mesmerism into South Africa. He used it quite successfully in his travels around the country. He was however an opium addict and so had no real power to properly promote hypnosis in this country.

Nowadays hypnosis has become the topic of much scientific research and it is slowly but surely casting off its mantle as magic. While we can smile at the antics of the mesmerists and their hocus-pocus, they did lay the groundwork for what today is seen as a powerful modality with which to help people from managing anything from pain management, to anxiety and stopping smoking.

So let’s take a moment and thank these brave pioneers who risked ridicule to examine new possibilities in dealing with human pain and suffering and who paved the way for modern hypnotists to serve their clients with pride and honour.


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1774 – The Birth of Mesmerism