Franz Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer, sometimes also known as Friedrich Anton Mesmer in publications, (* 23 May 1734 in Iznang, now part of Moos on Lake Constance; † 5 March 1815 in Meersburg) was initially a doctor in Vienna, then carried out “magnetic” cures and founded animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism.

In 1774, Mesmer heard about the healing successes achieved by the Jesuit priest and astronomer Maximilian Hell with magnets, whose natural radiation he attributed a healing effect on animal and human organisms. After some experiments of his own, he came to the conclusion that the magnetic cures, which he also began to use, were not caused by his magnets, but by his own physical influence. He set down these theories for the professional world in a letter to a foreign doctor on magnetic cures (Vienna 1775) and called them “animal magnetism”.

In 1780, when he had more patients than he could treat individually, Mesmer introduced the method of collective healing known as the “tub” with which he could treat more than 30 people at the same time.
The patients, connected to each other by ropes, sit around a round oak box with holes in the lid
and from which metal rods emerge that can come into contact with various diseased parts of the body.
In the bottom of the box, on a layer of crushed glass and iron filings, rest symmetrically lined up, filled bottles, some pointing to the center, others to the edge.
Mesmer, in a robe of lilac silk, and his assistants, whom he has chosen to be young and handsome, are armed with a ten to twelve inch iron rod with which they touch diseased parts of the body.
Mesmer usually accompanies his magnetism sessions by playing the fortepiano or the glass harmonica. (Glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1762).

Marie Antoinette is subjected to Franz Anton Mesmer’s “tub” (device for treating illnesses by emitting a magnetic field).
Copperplate engraving from Le collier de la Reine (The Queen’s Necklace) by Alexandre Dumas, 1856. During these collective treatments around the tub, contagious phenomena of “magnetic crises” manifest themselves, in which women of the best society
lose control, burst into “hysterical” laughter, faint, go into convulsions…

A witness describes a crisis in detail:
“The breathing was precipitate, she stretched both arms behind her back by twisting them strongly, and bending her body forward; there was a general trembling of the whole body; the chattering of her teeth became so loud that it could be heard from outside; she bit her hand, and strongly enough to keep her teeth marked.”
Mesmer suggests that these spasms are curative, indicating that the fluid, enhanced by the magnetic passages, is overcoming the barrier preventing circulation in the patient’s body.
In cases of severe convulsions, patients were placed in a padded room called the “crisis chamber”.
One of Mesmer’s four tubs is reserved for the poor but space in the other three must be booked well in advance, earning him around 300 louis a month.

The Viennese medical faculty was very critical of Mesmer’s theories, and when he founded a hospital for his method of healing in Vienna and was very successful with it, opponents formed.

They used his unsuccessful treatment of the famous pianist and composer Maria Theresia Paradis (1759-1824), who had been blind since the age of three, to denounce his healing method as ineffective. This became a stumbling block for him. In 1777, a commission of experts convened by the empress determined that Mesmer’s healing method was nothing but a fraud.


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