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Anton Mesmer

Fran Anton Mesmer, the doctor who invented magnetism


Mesmer developed a theory according to which our bodies contain a certain magnetism and which he used to cure illnesses.

Whatever doubt may still envelop the rationale of mesmerism, its startling facts are now almost universally admitted.

So begins the fantastical story by Edgar Allan Poe, Mesmeric Revelation. In the story, the writer uses one of the medical novelties of his era to concoct a fantastical story about a certain visionary state. And the medical novelty on which it is based is that which was proposed by Franz Anton Mesmer at the beginning of the 18th century. A theory that, as Poe stated, was enveloped in doubt, although some of its facts were accepted.

Franz Anton Mesmer was born on May 23, 1734 in Iznang, Germany. In 1759 he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. In his early thesis De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum Mesmer studied the influence of the moon and the stars on the human body and their corresponding influence on a variety of illnesses. According to his theories, Mesmer attempted to cure a young patient, Fraulein Oesterlin, who was suffering from periodic and serious physical pain. Relating the frequency of Oesterlin’s pain with the tides, Mesmer deduced that by provoking an artificial tide in his patient would put an end to the illness. On July 28, 1774, he made his patient drink an iron solution, magnetizing the interior of her stomach and legs to then irradiate her body with powerful magnets.

The success of the treatment led to immediate fame for Mesmer, although it was not without controversy, and which led him to move to Paris in 1777. There he opened his own surgery with much success. His treatment was based on the supposed existence of magnetic fluids which, present inside the body, interconnect with each element of the universe. Illnesses were therefore provoked by the interruption, blockage or imbalance of those fluids.

After his first experiment with magnets, Mesmer realized that the doctor himself, by possessing those same magnetic fluids, could connect the fluids of patients with those of the universe by simply using his hands and restore the patient’s health. The so-called animal magnetism was thus channeled and through a ‘magnetic crisis’ the patient could be cured.

The doctor’s innate commercial talent led him to develop, amid the growing number of patients attending his clinic, to develop an apparatus called a baquet, capable of concentrating the flow of the magnetic fluid and enabling him to treat twenty people at the same time.

Around 1785, several episodes caused Mesmer’s downfall. On the one hand, a succession of therapeutic failures and, on the other, the publication of the results of an official investigation into his experiments concluding that there was no proof whatsoever of the existence of such magnetic fluid.

Despite the justified doubts to which Poe alludes in his story and the aura of obscurity and mystery that surrounds Mesmer’s theories, the development of his ideas by some of his successors aided the development of modern psychotherapy. Mesmerism, developed by successive discoveries and continual correction, extended its influence to Sigmund Freud. Curiously, Poe’s defense of it, either real or literary, turned out to be prophetic, as with many other themes broached by the US-born author.


Image: “A practitioner of mesmerism using animal magnetism on a woman who responds with convulsions”. Wood engraving. Mesmer, Franz Anton 1734-1815 / Cortesy of Welcome Images – Welcome Trust

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