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Mesmer, Friedrich Anton

MESMER, FRIEDRICH ANTON (or FRANZ ANTON) (1733-1815), Austrian doctor, from whose name the word " Mesmerism " was coined (see HYPNOTISM), was born at Weil, near the point at which the Rhine leaves the Lake of Constance, on the 23rd of May 1733. He studied medicine at Vienna under the eminent masters of that day, Van Swieten and De Haen, took a degree, and commenced practice. Interested in astrology, he imagined that the stars exerted an influence on beings living on the earth. He identified the supposed force first with electricity, and then with magnetism; and it was but a short step to suppose that stroking diseased bodies with magnets might effect a cure. He published his first work (De planetarum influxu) in 1766. Ten years later, on meeting with J. J. Gassner in Switzerland, he observed that the priest effected cures by manipulation alone. This led Mesmer to discard the magnets, and to suppose that some kind of occult force resided in himself by which he could influence others. He held that this force permeated the universe, and more especially affected the nervous systems of men. He removed to Paris in 1778, and in short time the French capital was thrown into a state of great excitement by the marvellous effects of mesmerism. Mesmer soon made many converts; controversies arose; he excited the indignation of the medical faculty of Paris, who stigmatized him as a charlatan; still the people crowded to him. He refused an offer of 20,000 francs from the government for the disclosure of his secret, but it is asserted that he really told all he knew privately to any one for 100 louis. He received private rewards of large sums of money. His consulting apartments were dimly lighted and hung with mirrors; strains of soft music occasionally broke the profound silence ; and the patients sat round a kind of vat in which various chemical ingredients were concocted. Holding each others' hands, or joined by cords, the patients sat in expectancy, and then Mesmer, clothed in the dress of a magician, glided amongst them, affecting this one by a touch, another by a look, and making "passes" with his hand towards a third. Nervous ladies became hysterical or fainted; some men became convulsed, or were seized with palpitations of the heart or other bodily disturbances. The government appointed a commission of physicians and members of the Academy of Sciences to investigate these phenomena; Franklin and Baillie were members of this commission, and drew up an elaborate report admitting many of the facts, but contesting Mesmer's theory that there was an agent called animal magnetism, and attributing the effects to physiological causes. Mesmer himself was undoubtedly a mystic; and, although the excitement of the time led him to indulge in mummery and sensational effects, he was honest in the belief that the phenomena produced were real, and called for further investigation. For a time, however, animal magnetism fell into disrepute; it became a system of downright jugglery, and Mesmer himself was denounced as a shallow empiric and impostor. He withdrew from Paris, and died at Meersburg in Switzerland on the 5th of March 1815. He left many disciples, the most distinguished of whom was the marquis de Puysegur.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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