The History of Animal Magnetism


"Nature affords a universal means of healing and preserving men."

—Franz Mesmer

It's almost impossible to write the history of modern psychology without pausing at the peculiar chapter of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century German doctor who seduced Paris with his eccentric notions of 'animal magnetism'.

Like an unfathomable paradox, his discredited theories and flamboyant techniques—think 'magnetized' trees and musical harmonies triggering invisible forces—skirted the edges of lunacy and genius.

Yet, within this eccentricity lay the seeds of hypnosis and psychoanalysis, and therein lies the mesmerizing irony of a man whose name became synonymous with influence, while his life's work teetered on the brink of scandal and obscurity.


portrait of Franz Mesmer
© History Oasis

Words often possess a secret history, stories concealed within their letters, their connotations offering a gateway to another era. 'Mesmerize' is a term that's become common parlance in the English language, a synonym for deep fascination or hypnotic allure.

Its etymology, however, carries us on a fascinating journey, a trip back in time to the 18th-century drawing rooms of Paris and the theatrics of a German doctor named Franz Mesmer.

In Mesmer's world, the human body was a conduit for a mysterious and invisible force he named 'animal magnetism'.

He believed he could manipulate this energy, channeling it to heal ailments and even control others' actions.

His demonstrations were akin to an art performance, a blend of charisma, suggestion, and touch, leaving his patients and onlookers entranced.

The sensation it induced in his spectators, this profound captivation, is what birthed the term 'mesmerize'.


King of France
© History Oasis

Even in the theaters of 18th-century French salons, where the unusual often piqued the collective curiosity, Mesmer's flamboyant claims provoked skepticism.

It wasn't long before the glimmer of novelty faded, and the scientific community began to dissect the foundations of his animal magnetism theory.

The year was 1784, and the verdict of two Royal Commissions, one even boasting the intellectual prowess of Benjamin Franklin, hung heavily in the air.

A controversial figure himself, Franklin understood the art of walking the tightrope between audacity and accepted knowledge.

Yet, when it came to Mesmer's theories, he and his fellow commissioners were resolute: they found no merit in the doctor's claims.

There were no traces of the invisible fluid he purported to manipulate, no empirical evidence to substantiate the cures he claimed to affect.

This judgment was no small setback for Mesmer, nor was it just another scientific debate. It was an emphatic denouncement from the intellectual titans of his era, a public rebuke that threatened to shatter his credibility.

The Royal Commissions' conclusion was harsh yet unequivocal: Mesmer's animal magnetism was deemed a charlatan's trick, a sensational illusion devoid of scientific substance.


animal magnetism pary
© History Oasis

In medical history, Franz Mesmer remains an enigma, a figure who defies the typical conventions of his field.

Unlike his contemporaries who meticulously climbed the traditional academic ladder, Mesmer's educational journey took a more winding path.

A theological scholar turned law student, his path pivoted yet again, this time towards medicine, an unexpected turn that would define his life and legacy.

Though Mesmer embraced the study of medicine, he did so in his distinctive manner.

He did not chase the well-trodden path of medical scholarship, nor did he immerse himself in the minutiae of traditional practices.

Instead, he chose a different focus, a theme that was already beginning to shape his idiosyncratic worldview: the influence of planets on the human body.

For most of his peers, such a dissertation topic would border on the mystical, the uncharted territory that prudent scientists typically avoid.

But for Mesmer, this subject was a mirror of his own curiosity, a reflection of the intricate mesh of medical knowledge, astrology, and the untamed frontier of his animal magnetism theory.


Planets influence on the body
© History Oasis

Imagine for a moment a universe where bodies are not merely flesh and bone but vessels filled with a subtle, life-giving fluid.

In this world, as conceived by Franz Mesmer, the planets' gravitational tides tug at this fluid, inciting an intimate cosmic dance between celestial bodies and human health.

It's a notion that challenges our understanding of the universe and our place within it, daring us to embrace a broader, more enigmatic vista.

This daring perspective laid the groundwork for Mesmer's theory of animal magnetism, the controversial doctrine that would turn the scientific community on its head.

At its core, this theory postulated a world interconnected by unseen forces, a celestial ballet that both governed and responded to the energies within the human body.

The symphony of the planets, as Mesmer saw it, was not a silent spectacle but an interactive performance, a concert of forces that sculpted the course of human health.

Yet, this idea wasn't without its share of controversy.

In an era of Enlightenment, when the pursuit of empirical evidence began to define the parameters of scientific knowledge, Mesmer's ideas were seen as an aberration.

The concept of planets directly influencing human health seemed more rooted in ancient astrology than in the contemporary rigor of science.


Freemason party
© History Oasis

The German doctor, already a controversial figure for his unconventional theories, was a card-carrying member of the Freemasons and the Illuminati.

But these weren't mere social affiliations for Mesmer; they became integral to his worldview, shaping and intertwining with his theories of animal magnetism.

The Freemasons, with their focus on metaphysical knowledge and esoteric symbols, provided an intellectual framework that resonated with Mesmer's own inclinations.

The rituals, the codes, the emphasis on the unseen and the transcendental—all these elements found echoes in Mesmer's evolving notions of invisible, life-governing forces.

His concept of animal magnetism, of unseen energy coursing through and connecting all things, could easily find kinship in the Freemason's labyrinth of arcane symbols and their metaphysical interpretations.

Similarly, his association with the Illuminati, with their alleged pursuit of enlightenment and hidden knowledge, further amplified this synergy.

Mesmer, like the secret societies he was part of, was captivated by the allure of unseen forces and the promise of a hidden, more profound understanding of the universe.


Magnetic therapy on a tree
© History Oasis

Imagine a scene straight out of a surreal tableau: a group of Parisians clustered around a tree, their hands stretched out, their faces etched with anticipation.

This wasn't a religious ceremony or an artistic performance, but a medical treatment presided over by the enigmatic Franz Mesmer.

The star of this unusual spectacle? A 'magnetic tree', purportedly imbued with healing powers by Mesmer himself.

The concept of charging a tree with animal magnetism might seem ludicrous to our modern sensibilities, but for Mesmer, it was a logical extension of his theory.

In his worldview, where the invisible fluid of animal magnetism flowed through all living things, why couldn't a tree serve as a reservoir of healing energy?

So, Mesmer set about loading the tree with animal magnetism, effectively turning it into a curative tool.

His patients were encouraged to touch the tree, to physically connect with it in the hope that they could tap into its healing energy.

The scene, no doubt, sparked curiosity and incredulity in equal measure.

Critics scoffed at the spectacle, dismissing it as a grand illusion, a performance art piece masquerading as medicine.


City of Vienna (1700s)
© History Oasis

In the precarious theater of Franz Mesmer's life, Vienna was the stage where tragedy unfurled.

Here, the controversial healer found himself at the center of a scandal that would tarnish his reputation and lead to his eventual banishment from the city.

The cause? His treatment of Maria Theresia Paradis, a renowned blind musician who unexpectedly found herself at the heart of a contentious debate about the legitimacy of Mesmer's methods.

Under his care, she experienced a temporary recovery of sight, a miraculous event that brought Mesmer into the limelight. But the glimmer of success was fleeting.

Amid the fanfare and wonder, accusations started to echo through the city's corridors: Mesmer, they claimed, had faked Paradis's recovery to promote his theories of animal magnetism.

It was a damning indictment, one that whipped up a whirlwind of controversy around the unconventional healer.

The scientific community, already skeptical of Mesmer's esoteric claims, took this as a confirmation of their suspicions. Public opinion, once swayed by the allure of his seemingly miraculous cures, began to waver.

As the uproar grew, Mesmer found himself shunned from the city he once dazzled with his theories and performances.

Banished from Vienna, his reputation tarnished, Mesmer was forced to start anew.


Glass Armonica
© History Oasis

There's a unique harmony in the universe Franz Mesmer envisioned, a symphony of unseen forces, bodies, and celestial objects.

In this cosmic orchestra, music played a starring role, not as mere entertainment but as a potent instrument of healing.

Mesmer, ever the maestro of his unique brand of therapy, believed that music could enhance the flow of animal magnetism, turning melodies into an avenue for medical treatment.

To orchestrate this therapeutic harmony, Mesmer turned to an instrument that echoed his own unconventional ethos: the glass armonica.

The brainchild of none other than Benjamin Franklin, another figure who tread the blurred line between audacity and genius, the glass armonica captivated audiences with its ethereal tones.

For Mesmer, these delicate, otherworldly sounds were not just aesthetically pleasing, they were medicinal, a tool to stir the subtle fluid within the human body.

The performances that ensued were as much a healing ritual as they were a concert.

Patients gathered around as Mesmer played, their bodies resonating to the rhythm of the glass armonica, their minds entranced by the doctor's mesmerizing showmanship.

These musical treatments became the cornerstone of Mesmer's practice, the audible manifestation of his invisible theories.

Ironically, it was this convergence of music and magnetism, this unique blend of healing and performance, that further amplified the controversy surrounding Mesmer.

Detractors dismissed his musical treatments as mere theatrics, an elaborate spectacle designed to deceive rather than heal.

Yet, for those who believed, the melody of the glass armonica became a healing anthem.


© History Oasis

There's a curious echo to Franz Mesmer's legacy, a resonance that reverberates far beyond the controversies and performances of his lifetime.

It's an echo that speaks to the transformative power of ideas, even those dismissed or ridiculed in their time.

Despite the scientific community's rejection of his theories, Mesmer inadvertently laid the foundation for two fields that would revolutionize our understanding of the human mind: hypnosis and psychoanalysis.

Hypnosis, with its focus on altered states of consciousness and suggestibility, seems a natural extension of Mesmer's practices. While the invisible fluid of animal magnetism is no longer a mainstay of modern psychology, the idea of influencing a patient's mental state to foster healing has taken root.

In the dance of the hypnotist and their subject, in the rhythm of suggestion and response, we see a reflection of Mesmer's performances, his belief in the therapeutic power of entrancement.

In a similar vein, the birth of psychoanalysis, the discipline dedicated to exploring the hidden recesses of the mind, owes a subtle debt to Mesmer.

His interest in the unseen forces shaping human health, his belief in the influence of the cosmos on our bodies, foreshadowed the psychoanalytic focus on subconscious forces molding our thoughts, behaviors, and well-being.


© History Oasis

The curtain didn't fall on Franz Mesmer's animal magnetism with his death.

Instead, the theory embarked on a second act, resurrected by a group of adherents who found in it echoes of their own beliefs.

In the 19th century, spiritualist movements breathed new life into Mesmer's ideas, incorporating them into their practices and transforming animal magnetism from a scientific curiosity into a spiritual touchstone.

For these spiritualists, the invisible fluid that Mesmer postulated flowed through all living things became a conduit for spiritual healing and communication.

In this reinterpretation, the animal magnetism wasn't just a life-giving force, but a bridge spanning the physical and spiritual realms.

Through this etheric energy, the spiritualists claimed to facilitate healing, communion with the departed, and even gain insight into the mysteries of the universe.

The absorption of Mesmer's theories into spiritualism further muddied his legacy.

What was once an attempt to explain physical health and ailment in terms of celestial influence and invisible energy, was now intricately entwined with seances, ghostly communiques, and otherworldly healing.

Yet, in this revival, there's a testament to the enduring fascination with Mesmer's theories.

The spiritualist adoption of animal magnetism underscores the theory's captivating allure, its ability to resonate with diverse groups across different eras. Mesmer's ideas, whether viewed as groundbreaking science, egregious pseudoscience, or spiritual doctrine, continue to ignite imaginations, to mesmerize, long after their creator's demise.

And in this enduring fascination lies the intriguing paradox that was Franz Mesmer: a man dismissed and celebrated, ridiculed and revered, forgotten and remembered.