Mesmerism and Benjamin Franklin

(magnetic therapies doubted by other "scientists")

Challenges to Mesmer and His "Animal Magnetism" Practices

In the early 1770s, Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician and theologian, developed a technique that he claimed could cure a variety of physical and mental ailments.

His theory, called "animal magnetism," was based upon the idea that there existed "magnetic fluids" in nature, which could be used to rid the body and mind of many diseases.

While in Vienna, he claimed to have "cured" a young pianist of hysterical blindness through his magnetic therapies.

After having worn out his welcome in Vienna, Mesmer traveled to Paris in 1781, where he became very popular among the upper classes and members of the French court.

Mesmer held special salons with dim lighting and soft music. He would move around the room and use his hands to channel invisible magnetic fluids to his followers. The combination of light, music, and incantations from Mesmer produced a form of hypnotism or "mesmerism".

Many influential people flocked to Mesmer to be cured of all kinds of problems, real and imagined. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a follower of Mesmer, as was the French queen Marie Antoinette.

Mozart performed a musical play in Mesmer's honor, and Mesmer frequently was invited to the French court to perform for the queen. Because of his popularity at court, he became quite a celebrity in France and attracted a great deal of attention.

King Louis XVI, who was not as taken with Mesmer as much as his wife, Marie Antoinette and other members of his court, commissioned the French Academy of Sciences to investigate Mesmer and his therapeutic claims.

The academy appointed a number of prominent scientists and citizens to the investigating committee. Among the members were scientists Antoine Lavoisier, Paris mayor Jean Bailly, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, and Benjamin Franklin. Ironically, both Lavoisier and Bailly met their deaths on the beheading device named after Dr. Guillotin.

As a result of Franklin's poor health, the committee conducted their tests and investigations at Franklin's residence in Passy. Mesmer attempted to distance himself from the proceedings by sending an associate, Dr. Charles Deslon (Charles d'Eslon), in his place.

It was a clever ploy because if Deslon succeeded, Mesmer could take the credit; if Deslon failed, Mesmer could blame his assistant.

Deslon set about demonstrating how animal magnetism worked. One of the most dramatic tests involved "magnetizing" a tree and then having a subject identify the tree that had the most magnetic force.

Deslon prepared one of the trees, then blindfolded the subject, a twelve-year-old boy, and directed him to embrace several trees in Franklin's garden. The boy reported various sensations and said that the magnetic force was getting stronger, even though he was moving farther from the tree that Deslon had magnetized. The experiment ended when the boy fainted.

The commission's public report concluded that there was no scientific evidence of animal magnetism and that the cures attributed to it may have either happened through a normal remission of the problem or that the cure was some form of self-delusion.

Mesmer's attempts to avoid the commission's work failed, and he quickly lost popularity. He left France and died years later in Switzerland.

Although Franklin and his colleagues debunked many of Mesmer's practices and theories, mesmerism continued to be practiced for another century or so and had a resurgence in England during the late Victorian period.

Should Mesmer be given credit for pioneering modern hypnotism?

Mesmer spent most of his adult life in France and enjoyed, for a time, the support of Marie Antoinette. Most other physicians considered him a quack. He made a fair amount of money, but by nearly all accounts he was sincere.

He treated the poor for free. The medical establishment abhorred his theories and was determined to take him down; and it did, officially, with committees, experiments, and reports by eminent doctors who dismissed his claims. All but one, a Dr. Deslon, a respected court physician.

Deslon believed in the phenomenon of animal magnetism but did not believe it had anything to do with magnets. Deslon believed it worked (sometimes) via the imagination of the patient, by what we would now call suggestion or hypnosis.

Mesmer was adamant that his treatments had nothing to do with the imagination and adopted a "thanks, but no thanks attitude" toward Deslon.

Undeterred, Mesmer continued his work. He moved out of Paris to the fashionable resort of Spa and continued his work. Most of the money he made he put back into promoting his theories. Eventually, twenty hospitals, called "Societies of Harmony", were built in major cities all over France. This annoyed the medical establishment, but there was nothing they could do about it.

The king of Prussia begged Mesmer to settle in Berlin. He declined, so the king sent a man to apprentice himself to Mesmer, and later the king appointed the man Professor of Mesmerism in the Academy of Berlin. A hospital, where mesmerism was the only form of treatment, was built in Germany.

Mesmer's last years were reported to be peaceful. He owned a canary who lived in an open cage in his bedroom. Each morning the bird flew out and landed on Mesmer's head and then woke him up with a song, which would not end until Mesmer was up and dressed.

He could put the canary to sleep with a light touch of the hand and wake it up again by stroking the feathers in the opposite direction. He played his glass armonica, (invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761), and not the "harmonica" (as some have written) and still treated poor people without charging them.

He died at night on March 15, 1815, at the age of 85. When dawn broke, the canary did not fly to Mesmer's head. The bird, in fact, never sang or ate again and soon died.

Actually, some think of Mesmer as the accidental grandfather and Dr. Deslon the father of hypnotism. Perhaps the word "mesmerized" that came down to us should have been "deslonized" because of his beliefs that suggestions given in the right way could bring about positive results.

Whether he was a charlatan, a showman, or a true believer in his own practices, Franz Mesmer is credited as being one of the fathers of modern day hypnosis and psychotherapy.

  • Today hypnotism is used as an alternative to anesthesia; in dental work and even in some serious surgeries.
  • More and more, the medical establishment is accepting, even encouraging, alternative therapies.
  • Law enforcement uses hypnotism—most commonly in helping people remember crimes they've witnessed.
  • It's also used as a form of entertainment.
  • Therapeutically, hypnotism is used to treat an array of conditions or addictions or phobias.
  • Some therapists use hypnosis to treat narcoleptics and somnambulists, suicide intervention, pain-management techniques, and more.
  • There isn't anything particularly mysterious about hypnosis and how it works.
  • We know the mind can do miraculous things.
  • The hypnotist (in the therapeutic sense) is a facilitator, a tour guide, a healer.
  • Just like doctors and lawyers, some are better than others.

—Compilations were gathered from

Thereby Hangs a Tale by Charles E. Funk; Harper & Row, Publishers; New York; 1950, pages 192-193.

Anton Mesmer by D.M. Walmsley; Robert Hale Publisher; London; 1967.

Mesmerism, a translation of the original scientific and medical writings of F.A. Mesmer;
William Kaufmann, Inc.; Los Altos, California; 1980.

Also see the hypnotism unit and the mesmerism page for additional enlightenment.