Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician who pioneered the medical field of hypnotic therapy, dies in obscurity in Meersburg, Swabia (now Germany).
Born in 1734, Mesmer studied religion, philosophy, law, and medicine in Vienna, Austria, but initially failed to excel at any of these fields. In the 1770s, he became fascinated with Father Glassner, a Swiss Roman Catholic priest who was well known as a documented faith healer. After observing Glassner’s seemingly miraculous healings, Mesmer concluded that the cures were achieved by what he called “animal magnetism.” Mesmer believed that invisible magnetic fluids existed in living beings, and that if this invisible magnetic flow was upset, sickness could occur. He decided that Glassner was correcting obstructed magnetic flows by achieving a rapport, French for “harmony” or “connection,” with his patients.
In 1772, Mesmer began to develop various therapeutic treatments for curing what he perceived to be animal magnetism obstructions, which included the use of ethereal music as a hypnotic device, and intimate group-healing sessions. Despite obvious errors in Mesmer’s scientific theories, his process of mesmerism, as it came to be known, produced hypnotic states in his patients that had an extraordinary influence on their physical illnesses. His popularity grew, but the Viennese Medical Council declared him a fraud, and in 1778 he left Vienna for the more liberal environment of Paris.
In Paris, Mesmer treated peasants along with wealthy aristocrats and won a handful of disciples in the scientific community. In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed a committee of physicians and scientists to investigate his work; among the commission’s members were the American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin and the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. The commission reported that Mesmer was unable to support his scientific claims, and his practice subsequently declined. In 1778, he left Paris and retired to obscurity in his native Swabia.
Despite the eccentricities of his techniques, Mesmer is seen as a major innovator of hypnotic therapy and also one of the first Western physicians to safely treat psychosomatic illness and nervous disorders.