Franz Anton Mesmer

Anton Mesmer

Born: 1734 the 23 May
Died: 1815 on March 15
Birthplace: Austrian village of Iznang
Best known as: 18th century healer and showman



Franz Anton Mesmer was the Austrian physician after whom mesmerism was named, a famously flamboyant believer in the healing powers of an unknown physical property he dubbed "animal magnetism." He enjoyed a popular following and claimed to be able to "channel" magnetic powers in order to cure a variety of ailments, which he did for public display.

At the age of 32, he completed his medical training at the University of Vienna with a dissertation on the influence of the planets on human disease. In 1773, a twenty-seven year old patient, Fraulein Oesterlin, came to see Mesmer suffering from a variety of recurring physical ailments. In the spirit of his dissertation, Mesmer set about trying to relate the periodicity of Fraulein Oesterlin's symptom manifestations to tidal fluctuations and, in the course of this effort, decided to see whether he could induce an artificial tide in his patient.

On the 28th of July, 1774, he asked the fraulein to swallow a solution containing iron and affixed magnets to her stomach and legs.

The results of this treatment were to change the course of Mesmer's life. As Fraulein Oesterlin felt a mysterious fluid coursing throughout her body, her symptoms started to disappear. With continued treatment, she recovered completely, and Mesmer's fame began to spread.

Unfortunately, however, controversy over the effectiveness of his techniques spread as well; and in 1777, under somewhat dubious circumstances, Mesmer left Vienna for Paris after being acused by viennese physicians of fraud. In paris he established a lucrative practice in magnetic healing and completed the Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal. Influenced by physical theories of gravitational force and by the work of Franklin and others on electricity, Mesmer developed what was for the period a reasonable explanation of magnetic cure. 

He continued to enjoy a highly lucrative practice but again attracted the antagonism of the medical profession, and in 1784 King Louis XVI appointed a commission of scientists and physicians to investigate Mesmer’s methods; among the commission’s board members were the American inventor and statesman benjamin Franklin and the French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. They reported that Mesmer was unable to support his scientific claims, and the mesmerist movement thereafter declined.

Mesmer's fall was as meteoric as his rise. About 1785, after several spectacular therapeutic failures and the publication of the Rapport des Commissaires chargés par le Roy de l'examen du magnétisme animal (Bailly, 1784) which concluded that the evidence in favor of the existence of mesmeric fluid was inadequate, Anton mesmer left Paris under a cloud and lived the remainder of his life in relative obscurity, dying in 1815 near the place of his birth.