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Mesmerism: What is Animal Magnetism? And Who is Franz Mesmer?

Learn all about mesmerism, otherwise known as animal magnetism, its uses and who Franz Anton Mesmer was

Mesmerism: What is Animal Magnetism? And Who is Franz Mesmer? | iSTOCK

Mesmerism is the term given to an esoteric movement which was very popular in the XVIIIth century. Franz Mesmer was the founder of said movement, hence the name. His beliefs about healing were similar in nature to those of hypnosis and were called animal magnetism.

OK, so Franz Mesmer was the founder of mesmerism, but who exactly was he?

Franz-Friedrich-Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in Iznang, near Lake Constance in Germany. He spent his first few years having limited contact with nature yet always felt a strange attraction towards water.

Once he grew up, he studied law, philosophy and theology. He also graduated from a medical school in Vienna and it was there where he met the circle of people who were interested in dark sciences and in the paranormal and who introduced him to it. It was around this era when he wrote a thesis titled 'The influence of the planets on the human body'.

According to Mesmer, "there is an indisputable, mutual influence between the celestial bodies, the Earth and all the creatures on Earth". which is transmitted through our magnetic fluids. That's why Mesmer's name is closely linked to animal magnetism, as in his experiments, he'd work with magnets. Initially, he only used magnets in practise sessions, but later on he claimed he was able to transmit his own animal magnetism to patients through the use of magnets.

Mesmer was definitely a gifted individual, and in his personal life, he married a wealthy widow and was well-known in the upper echelons of Viennese society. He was close friends with Mozart, and it is rumoured that when he was 12, he asked Amadeus to help him interpret an opera.

Although he had many patients in Vienna and Paris, he ended up being denounced and labelled a fraud. When he died in 1813, his name had been heavily tainted and his practices had been discredited.

What is animal magnetism?

When we talk about animal magnetism, we must first learn to distinguish it from mineral magnetism, which is what everyone knows about. Mineral magnetism is a physical phenomenon in which two objects either attract or repel each other. However, mesmerism applies these laws to the human body. In other words, it claims that by using magnets, we can make the internal bodily energies flow in one direction or the other.

This energy flow is subject to mechanical laws previously unknown, Mesmer would "activate" our organism by stimulating the nerves at the top of our head, accumulating energy there, and then transmitting it through the body using magnets or an iron bar. Mesmer claimed that his technique was able to cure illnesses and believed he had discovered something verging on the realm of paranormality.

Unlike hypnosis, animal magnetism gave its surroundings, and everything in them, this mystical feeling. We must remember that he introduced this theory in an era when we didn't have psychology nor psychiatry, nor were we studying our brains' enormous potential.

Mesmer's investigations ended up changing the word mesmerism until it became an umbrella term for anything which looked at new fields of study and scientific exploration, and many people with exotic or strange practices took the opportunity and joined the movement, as did many charlatans. In fact, when hypnosis was developed, many practices from mesmerism were absorbed.

The controversy surrounding animal magnetism

As we previously mentioned, Mesmer had been discredited before he died. Although the German doctor claimed he had cured all types of ailments by "magnetizing" his patients, and had become somewhat of an international celebrity, he encountered many detractors which criticised his movement.

In August, 1784, his doctrine was condemned by two official commissions composed of doctors and scientists. His healing processes were labelled useless, and his good reputation was blamed on his ill patients' imagination, in other words, the placebo effect. Furthermore, they added that animal magnetism, which was the centre of all the healing that had supposedly taken place, was simply not real.

We must also point out that this commission said that "it is always men who magnetize women", something which may make any feminist reading this hiss, although there is a simple explanation. All the "experts" in magnetism were doctors, a profession which at the time was only fulfilled by men. Also, many of the patients who underwent the treatment weren't really ill at all, they were just curious about this new treatment and wanted to try it, almost as if it were a leisure activity.

Mesmer's beliefs on how to manipulate our internal magnetic fluid

Nevertheless, the magnets' ability to manipulate the magnetic fluid inside our bodies is the foundation of this healing process. Mesmerism considered an illness to be an obstacle in the energy stream which disrupted the free flow of energy throughout our bodies,  and its treatments were based on restoring this free flowing circulation of energy through a massage.

Mesmer also used other therapeutic agents, such as his looks, the gloomy aspect of the room, the "celestial" music and some other tools such as his famous bathtub, to which he would connect his patients with iron rods. This would allow him to treat various patients at the same time, and that way manage to keep up with the high demand of patients his ever-growing reputation was bringing him.

Two rather different perspectives on mesmerism

Ever since then, Mesmer's role has been analysed from two different points of view. There are authors such as the American historian of science Charles Gillispie who accused him of practising fake sciences, and believed that Mesmer was an imposter who took advantage of his knowledge in the field of science, of the gullibility of the public and of the desperation of the ill to trick them into trying his medicine.

However, there are other authors who consider him to be Freud's precursor, and the precursor of all psychotherapists of the XXth century due to him looking for a medical explanation for phenomena such as convulsions instead of religious explanations, and also because he had started exploring what we now call our unconscious.