Mesmer was born in the village of Iznang, Swabia. After studying at the Jesuit universities of Dillingen and Ingolstadt, he took up the study of medicine at the University of Vienna in 1759. In 1766 he published a doctoral dissertation with the Latin title De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum ("The Influence of the Planets on the Human Body"), which discussed the influence of the Moon and the planets on the human body and on disease. This wasn't 'medical astrology', however—relying largely on Newton's theory of the tides, Mesmer expounded on certain tides in the human body that might be accounted for by the movements of the sun and moon.1 Mesmer apparently plagiarized2 his dissertation from a work by Richard Mead (1673–1754)—an eminent English physician and Newton's friend.3 In all fairness, however, in Mesmer's day doctoral theses were not expected to be original.4
Soon after receiving his degree, Mesmer married Maria Anna von Posch, a wealthy widow, and established himself as a physician in Vienna. He lived on a splendid estate and patronized the arts.
Mesmer and the Mozarts
In 1768, when court intrigue prevented the performance of La Finta Semplice (K51) for which a twelve-year-old Mozart had composed 500 pages of music, Mesmer arranged a performance in his garden of Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne (K50), a one-act opera. It was performed at the Mesmer mansion on an autumn evening (the date remains uncertain) in 1768.5. The performance could not have taken place in his garden theater as it wasn't built yet—it likely took place in his house, perhaps in the garden room. (Deutsch, A Documentary Bio, 84)] While conducting, the composer sat at the keyboard, which he played as a member of the orchestra.6 Mozart later immortalized his former patron by including a joking reference to Mesmer in his opera Cosi fan tutte:
This is that piece
The stone of Msemer
And then became so famous7
In 1773 father and son Mozart were in Vienna and encountered the armonica at Franz Mesmer's house. Leopold wrote home to his wife:
Herr von Mesmer, at whose house we lunched on Monday, played to us on Miss Davies's [h]armonica or glass instrument and played very well. It cost him about fifty ducats and it is very beautifully made.8
A few weeks later Leopold brought up the armonica again, mentioning that Wolfgang himself tried playing Mesmer's instrument:
Do you know that Herr von Mesmer plays Miss Davies's harmonica unusually well? He is the only person in Vienna who has learnt it and he possesses a much finer glass instrument than Miss Davies does. Wolfgang too has played upon it. How I should like to have one!9
This would suggest that Mesmer purchased his armonica some time between 1768 and 1773—this instrument became his favorite for the rest of his life. He also played the violoncello and the clavichord. Visiting musicians included Gluck10
Mesmer's musicales took place in the drawing room of the mansion or, if the weather was pleasant, in his open-air theater. He often took an instrumental part in an ensemble with the professionals, accompanying them through established classics like Purcell and Palestrina, introducing works by Gluck, Haydn, or lesser composers then exciting the Viennese ear. The audience usually included acquaintances knowledgeable enough about their host's vanity to ask him for a solo on the glass armonica, his own choice for a display of his virtuosity. 11
We know almost nothing of the medical procedures of Dr. Mesmer in this early period. Interestingly it's the letters of the Mozart family that give us glimpses of the treatment of a patient who was to become famous in the history of animal magnetism as one of its first successes: Miss Franziska Oesterlin, who was living in Mesmer's home in 1773. On August 12, 1773, Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife,
Miss Franzl has again been dangerously ill, and blisters had to be applied to her arms and feet. She is so much better now [They had expected her to die.] that she has knitted in bed a red silk purse for Wolfgang, which she has given him as a remembrance.12
On August 21 Leopold wrote to his wife that Miss Franzl had a second relapse and recovered from it.
It is amazing how she can stand so much bleeding and so many medicines, blisters, convulsions, fainting fits and so forth, for she is nothing but skin and bone.13
But Mesmer's treatments were ultimately successful—Wolfgang writes to his father on March 17, 1780 from Mesmer's garden on the Landstrasse:
The old lady is not at home, but Franzl is now Frau von Posch and is here... she has grown so plump and fat—she has three children—2 girls and a young gentleman.14
Franzl had married Mesmer's stepson, Franz de Paula von Bosch (Bosch and Posch were interchangeable names).15
Maria Theresa von Paradis
In 1777 he treated Maria Theresa von Paradis (also von Paradies) (1759–1824), the famous blind pianist for whom Mozart wrote a piano concerto (probably No.18 in Bb, K456, composed 1778). When Maria awoke one morning at the age of three years and seven months, she was totally blind. The parents called in the best medical talent in Vienna, who pronounced her incurable but treated her for several years anyway. They shaved her head and put plasters on it for two months. They applied leaches. Purgatives and diuretics were prescribed in abundance. In addition, thousands of electric shocks were given to her eyes (with Leyden jars)—the only result being that her eyes protruded from their sockets and were continuously spasming and turning upward. Nor was blindness her only affliction—she also suffered from melancholia and attacks of delirium.18 (Not surprising, considering the 'cure' she was enduring.) In order to give their daughter a diversion, they provided music lessons, and she became a capable singer and keyboard player. The Empress attended her performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in which she played the organ and sang, and was so moved that she granted the child, then 11 years old, a pension of 200 florins a year so she could continue her musical education.19
Mesmer had known Miss Paradis for several years, and told her father he could treat her protruding and spasming eyes with his newly discovered 'animal magnetism'. Privately, Mesmer thought he could cure her blindness. Treatment began January 20, 1777. By the fourth day her eyes resumed their normal positions, their movements subsided, and her previously dilated pupils became normal. Within a month apparently some vision had been restored. At best she was always extraordinarily sensitive to light, and having been blind from such a young age she had serious trouble making any sense of her new visual experience: the nose on the human face was absurd to her to the point of bursting into laughter (she might be right about that); she was surprised that pictures were flat and not three-dimensional; when she turned her eyes toward a window in daytime or a lighted candle at night, she experienced vertigo.20 She also had trouble learning colors and judging the distances of objects.21
Partial restoration of vision did not bring happiness—it made her miserable. She asked her father: "Why am I not as happy now as I used to be? Everything that I see makes an unpleasant impression on me. I was much more calm when I was blind... If I am always going to be as excited when I see new things as I am now, I would rather return to my blindness."22 When friends, relatives, or important people were brought to her, she often had attacks of fainting or uncontrollable weeping. When outdoors, she asked that her eyes be bandaged because the light caused vertigo. Before the partial restoration of her eyesight she had walked around her house unaided with complete confidence; now, she bound up her eyes and had to be led.
Worse, it ruined her playing. When she was blind she had played the most difficult music with the greatest accuracy, even while carrying on a conversation. With vision it was hard for her to play: she watched her fingers on the keyboard and played mostly wrong notes.
More medical experts were called in. At first reports of Mesmer's apparent success were glowing, such as that of Dr. Le Roux,23 but the tide began to turn. Dr. Barth, Professor of Diseases of the Eye, had stated on two occasions that Miss Paradis could see, but then changed his mind and declared that she could not see after all.24 Mesmer's medical enemies began to work on Maria's father: as her vision improved and her playing degraded she might lose her pension. Matters became so bad that swords were literally drawn in Mesmer's home—with poor Maria caught in the middle. Finally the father convinced Mesmer to allow him to take Maria on a vacation "so that she might enjoy the benefit of the country air," promising to return her to his care. They never brought her back. Instead, Mesmer learned that her family was saying that she was still blind and subject to convulsions. "They compelled her to imitate fits and blindness," Mesmer wrote. "It was necessary, in the plans of her greedy parents, that this unfortunate girl should become blind again or appear so." He believed their motive was to retain the pension of 200 florins a year.25
She lived the life of a completely blind person for the rest of her days. For years she conducted a school of music for young ladies and was prominent in Viennese musical and intellectual society. She composed music including several operas that were staged in Vienna and Prague—none of which achieved any success. In 1784 she toured Europe and performed in Paris and London.26
During the rest of her life Maria Theresa had nothing to say about Mesmer apart from a passing reference in a letter in 1780 that her nervous system had been weakened "by the unsuccessful result of an eye treatment". She died in 1824 at the age of 65.27
After Miss Paradis returned to her parents and Mesmer found himself thoroughly discredited, without a single defender in the medical profession, he began to think about leaving Vienna. His departure was not hurried, nevertheless it was strongly encouraged by the medical and ecclesiastical community—Vienna at that time was in the Holy Roman Empire, and the ecclesiastical community had a lot of clout (they didn't call it the Holy Roman Empire for nothing!). Nevertheless, Mesmer was provided with a letter of recommendation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Viennese ambassador in Paris, which shows that his government had not repudiated him.28 He left Vienna about January 1778—he took his armonica with him but left his wife behind! She needed to stay in Vienna to manage her inheritance, and their relationship at this point seems to have been one of mutual indifference. Mesmer was never to see her again—twelve years later she died of breast cancer.29
He arrived in Paris in February of 1778 in the company of his valet and Dr. La Roux. He promptly rented an apartment in the Place Vendôme—a part of the city preferred by the wealthy and powerful. "He brought with him the robust conviction that he deserved the homage of all mankind, homage due to the discoverer of a new force in nature which wcould cure all diseases and would eventually displace conventional medicine. He had an imperturbable sense of his importance to the world without a trace of modesty or humility."30
November 1, 1779: "my armonica has not arrived and it is not possible for it to be here in time."31
There, in May 1779, he met Gluck, and enchanted him by his playing on the armonica. (Did Gluck tell Mesmer of his own concert on the musical glasses given in London forty-three years earlier?) Although Mesmer could play from printed music, Gluck was so impressed with Mesmer's improvisations that he urged him to confine his playing to extemporization. Apparently Mesmer was particularly fond of entertaining his guests with his armonica at twilight after dinner, and he took Gluck's advice to heart and rarely performed from printed music. When deeply moved by his own playing Mesmer used to sing at the same time. 32
Paris at that time was certainly an excellent place for a physician, for Paris was filled with people suffering from many chronic diseases, untreated and untreatable. The population was ravaged by epidemics, of which smallpox was especially feared. It has been estimated that smallpox disfigured the faces of one fourth of the women of France, some 200,000 of whom took refuge in convents from the rejection they experienced because of their appearance. As a result, average life expectancy was about 40 years.33
The people of Paris were not as tightly controlled as the Viennese, who were dominated by the double dictatorship of Maria Theresa and the church. The French had considerably more freedom of speech; censorship of books was easily evaded. Mesmer began to practice medicine without asking the permission of any professional or governmental entity—how he managed to pull this off is not understood; certainly no French citizen could practice with such an exemption. Physicians who were graduates of faculties outside of Paris and wished to practice were required to pass examinations and defend theses in public disputations. Meanwhile, patients and curiosity-seekers flocked to him for treatment. Paris was soon divided into two factions: those who were sure he was a charlatan who had been forced to flee Vienna, and those who accepted his own self-evaluation that he had made a world-shaking discovery. In order to accommodate the throng of people who eagerly sought treatment with animal magnetism, Mesmer developed a method of mass treatment. Since he had discovered in 1775 that he could communicate animal magnetism to glass, water, and other substances and store it in them, he built a reservoir, the baquet, from which several patients could draw the healing agent at the same time. Baquet means tub, a word which lacks dignity; therefore the word is usually left untranslated.
Inside the wooden tub, which had a diameter of four or five feet, were bottles filled with water and laid on their sides and with their necks pointing to the center of the tub; they had been magnetized by Mesmer's stroking. To give more pressure to the magnetic fluid, a second or even a third layer of bottles could be placed over the first. The tub was filled with enough water to cover the bottles. Iron rods issued from the bottles and extended upward through the lid of the tub, bent so that they might be applied directly to the ailing parts by the patients, who stood in a circle around the tub. A cord could be passed around them, and sometimes they joined hands. A pianoforte or Mesmer's favorite instrument, the glass armonica, furnished music. The magnetism was propagated by the music, as Mesmer had discovered.34
Since Mesmer recognized the part suggestion and imagination play in the healing process and since he understood the influence of the surroundings on both, he took great pains to provide his patients with a setting in which they could be persuaded to submit to his technique. His whole purpose was to establish rapport with them, to gain their confidence and trust, and then, their nerves being now receptive, to introduce doses of animal magnetism into their bodies. Mesmer laid out his clinic as meticulously as if he were stage-managing a play. Only when he had the right conditions around him was he ready for the day's session. This was the séance of Mesmerism.
It began in a large room where dozens of patients could be taken care of at the same time in individualized and group therapy. The room at the Hôtel Bullion was an opulent, spacious one in which previous residents had entertained the beau monde of Paris. It had a lofty ceiling, inlaid floors, paneled walls, full-length mirrors, and oriel windows. The furnishings were in the best Louis Quinze style, from the artwork on the walls and tables to the chairs in which the patients sat while they were being magnetized.
Mesmer needed this elegant setting. The aristocrats who came to the clinic would feel at ease in the type of room familiar to them, while the poor would feel that they were being lifted by Dr. Mesmer above the hard and sordid lives they led. In either case, the setting aided the cure. Mesmer accepted all patients—there is no evidence he ever turned a patient away as being beyond help; if he could not cure, he could at least relieve their suffering. "He treated eye troubles, blindness, deafness, apoplexy, asthma, tumors of all kinds, skin and scalp diseases, migraine, and all the rest. Leprosy was to be treated 'like ringworm,' with magnetized water. The idea that he limited his practice to disorders of nervous origin is a common error."35
During the séance Mesmer kept the doors and windows closed. Heavy drapes allowed only a dim light, and no noise to filter in from the outside. The atmosphere was warm and oppressive, causing labored breathing conducive to emotional excitement. Silence reigned except for whispers between patients and doctors (Mesmer or his assistants) in the give-and-take of diagnosis, treatment and prescription. One cardinal exception—the sound of a piano or glass armonica came from a corner of the room. Mesmer had learned from his Viennese teachers about the healing properties of music; he had stated in Proposition 16 of his memoir that animal magnetism "can be communicated, propogated, and reinforced by sound,"36 and he combined the two ideas by placing instruments where his patients could hear and be moved by them.
He was not interested in melody as such when he placed musical instruments in the clinic. They were indispensable to his medical practice, swaying, disturbing, calming the ill. Stormy music helped bring on the Mesmerian crisis, and soft music helped allay it. The musician shifted from one to the other at a signal from Mesmer or an assistant. One of Mesmer's followers, Caullet de Vaumorel, testified to the exquisite sensitivity with which the mood of the patients changed as the mood of the music changed.37
Apparently Mesmer was effective. Sometime between 1778 and 1779 a Dr. Le Roux took an army surgeon (and thus presumably a hard-headed fellow) to Mesmer's clinic for treatment of gout with which he had been afflicted for nine years...
After several turns around the room, Mr. Mesmer unbuttoned the patient's shirt and, moving back somewhat, placed his finger against the part affected. My friend felt a tickling pain. Mr. Mesmer then moved his finger perpendicularly across his abdomen and chest, and the pain followed the finger exactly. He then asked the patient to extend his index finger and pointed his own finger toward it at a distance of three or four steps, whereupon my friend felt an electric tingling at the tip of his finger, which penetrated the whole finger toward the palm. Mr. Mesmer then seated him near the armonica; he had hardly begun to play when my friend was affected emotionally, trembled, lost his breath, changed color, and felt pulled toward the floor. In this state of anxiety, Mr. Mesmer placed him on a couch so that he was in less danger of falling, and he brought in a maid who he said was antimagnetic. When her hand approached my friend's chest, everything stopped with lightning speed, and my colleague touched and examined his stomach with astonishment…. The sharp pain had suddenly ceased. Mr. Mesmer told us that a dog or a cat would have stopped the pain as well as the maid did.38
Mesmer also experimented on d'Eslon—Mesmer's "right-hand man"—by playing on the glass armonica or the piano and conveying animal magnetism to him. D'Eslon was obliged to beg for mercy about the music, presumably because of the discomfort caused by the charge of animal magnetism that it carried.39
Mesmer wanted official recognition for his discoveries—he considered himself more physicist than physician.40 He approached the Royal Academy of Sciences; then the Royal Society of Medicine; then the Faculty of Medicine. He was rebuffed by all. Finally, he informed his patients that he would discontinue their treatments on April 15, 1781 and leave the country. One of these patients, the Duchesse de Chaulnes, complained to her friend Queen Marie Antoinette. The Queen proposed that a commission be established to investigate his claims, and if their report is favorable that he be recompensed (including a life annuity of 20,000 livres) and given official government sanction and support on the condition that he remain in France. Mesmer reluctantly agreed. Two weeks later the Minister of State, Jen-Frédéric Phélipeaux, Count of Maurepas, met with Mesmer, and began by saying that the King, informed of Mesmer's dislike of being investigated by commissioners, wished to excuse him from that formality and would grant him a life annuity of 20,000 livres and pay 10,000 livres a year for a house suitable for the instruction of students. Mesmer repudiated his agreement to the Queen's offer and declined the King's.41
In 1784, the King appointed four members of the Faculty of Medicine as commissioners to investigate animal magnetism as practiced by Dr. Charles d'Eslon—Mesmer's foremost disciple. This commission had not been requested by Mesmer or any of his followers. The members of the commission were:
- Michel-Joseph Majault: a physician at Hôtel-Dieu, one of Paris' main hospitals. (Majault replaced Jean-François Borie, who had originally been appointed but died at the beginning of the investigation.)
- Charles-Louis Ballin: a professor of physiology, pathology, and pharmacology.
- Jean d'Arcet: a physician and chemist
- Joseph-Ignace Guillotin: physician, after whom the guillotine is named, although he didn't invent it—he championed it as a more humane method of executing the condemned (which indeed it was).
At the request of these commissioners, five additional members from the Royal Academy of Sciences were appointed:
- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (!): now 78 and suffering from gout.
- Jean-Baptiste Le Roy: physician
- Jean-Sylvain Bailly: astronomer and he first mayor of Paris.
- Gabriel de Bory: geographer and previously governor of Santo Domingo.
- Antoine-Laurent Lavoiser: chief founder of modern chemistry42
Franklin and Mesmer had previously been acquainted. In a letter from Mesmer to Franklin, written sometime before November 1, 1779, Mesmer apologizes that his armonica isn't available.43. But that seems to be rectified, as Franklin and Mme. Brillon went to Mesmer's house in Paris to hear him play later that year. They were interested in Mesmer's armonica. That the visit was rather strained, with the guests trying to keep the conversation on music and their host trying to promote his medical theories is reflected by an exclamation of Madame Brillon in one of her many evocations of paradise, dated November 1, 1779: "... in heaven, M. Mesmer will content himself with playing the armonica and will not bother us with his electrical fluid!"44 Mesmer wrote to Franklin on December 1, 1779,45 referring to some patients Franklin had seen—it appears that the genuineness of the cures was in question, and Mesmer promised to show him other patients when they were to dine together in the following week. Mesmer had given Franklin 12 copies of his Précis historique (a tract Mesmer had written about animal magnetism) when it was published in 1781; Franklin gave them to his friends but still remained skeptical. On March 18, 1784, Franklin wrote to de la Condamine:
As to the animal magnetism, so much talk'd of, I am totally unacquainted with it, and must doubt its existence till I can see or feel some effect of it. None of the cures said to be perform'd by it, have fallen under my observation46; and there being so many disorders which cure themselves and such a disposition in mankind to deceive themselves and one another on these occasions; and living long having given me frequent opportunities of seeing certain remedies cry'd up as curing everything, and yet so soon after totally laid aside as useless, I cannot but feat that the expectation of great advantage from the new method of treating diseases will prove a delusion. That delusion may however in some cases be of use while it lasts. There are in every great city a number of persons who are never in health, because they are fond of medicines and always taking them, and hurt their constitutions. If these people can be persuaded to forbear their drugs in expectation of being cured by only the physician's finger or an iron rod pointed at them, they may possibly find good effects tho' they mistake the cause.
At the same time, one should consider the following anecdote about Franklin: In the spring of 1772, Franklin called on Prince Adam Czartoryski, heir apparent to the throne of Poland. His wife had been suffering from 'melancholia':
I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishing to distract me, my husband explained to me who Franklin was and to what he owed his fame… Franklin had a noble face with an expression of engaging kindness. Surprised by my immobility, he took my hands and gazed at me saying: pauvre jeune femme ["poor young lady"]. He then opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, "Madam, you are cured." Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia. Franklin offered to teach me how to play the armonica — I accepted without hesitation, hence he gave me twelve lessons.47
Alas, several years later she seems to have relapsed.48 )
As soon as Mesmer learned that a commission had been formed to investigate animal magnetism as practiced by Dr. Charles d'Eslon, Mesmer wrote a letter to Dr. Franklin. He disavowed d'Eslon, stating that he had only an incomplete knowledge of animal magnetism.49
Since the King's first members of the commission belonged to the Faculty of Medicine, the rival organization, the Royal Society of Medicine, asked to be represented, and the King authorized a second commission.50 Both commissions began their work promptly, and their reports were published about 5 months later. The first commission, of which Franklin was a member, carried out their experiments at Franklin's house in deference to his health. But d'Eslon's demonstrations broke down under the committee's examination when, for example, a patient who was supposed to feel the effects of animal magnetism was unable to tell—when blindfolded—whether the mesmerizer was present or not. The committee reported that Mesmer's results were due to his good salesmanship and the patient's imagination, and that his "animal magnetism" was really the faith of the patient. The second commission reported essentially the same findings.
In all fairness, the commission noted that Mr. Deslon used a piano, and not an armonica, to conduct the magnetism.51 Perhaps the experiments would have succeeded had they used an armonica!
Opinions raged, books and letters were volleyed back and forth, and satirical plays abounded. Michel-Augustin Thouret (1748–1810), a docteur-régent (basically a senior physician) of the Faculty of Medicine, was commissioned by the Royal Society of Medicine to collect everything concerning animal magnetism in ancient and modern authors and to make a report on its origins. The result was his Recherches et doutes sur le magnétisme animal (Research and Doubts about Animal Magnetism); one of the precursors Thouret cited was our old friend Athanasius Kircher for his work on magnetism: Magnes, sive de arte magnetica (The Magnet, or the Magnetic Art).52
The committees' reports were the beginning of the end for Mesmer. Franklin wrote on April 29, 1785 that Mesmer was still working in Paris:
It is surprising how much credulity still subsists in the world. I suppose all the physicians in France put together have not made so much money during the time he has been here, as he has done.53
Mesmer still kept in touch with Franklin.54
Mesmer left Paris later that year, aimlessly wandering around Europe until he was 'rediscovered' by a group of physicians in Berlin.55 By then D'Eslon had died (August 1786), and France had been caught up in the Reign of Terror: the King and Queen, and commission members Lavoisier and Bailly were guillotined. Perhaps the commissions actually did Mesmer a favor—due to their findings Mesmer had left France and missed the French Revolution altogether.
Around 1809 Mesmer ended up retiring in Frauenfeld in (what is now) his native Switzerland.56 "He played his glass [h]armonica in a masterly manner with extensive improvisations, usually after meals and to honor a guest who was agreeable to him."57 Mesmer was in good health until February 1815, when he complained of a general malaise, accompanied by retention of urine (in old men almost always due to hypertrophy of the prostate).58 On March 1 he suffered a stroke, and on the 5th, with the end imminent, he asked if his Catholic priest friend Fessler would come and play the glass armonica for him. The priest hurried to the bedside of the dying man, but Mesmer died quietly before he got there. Kerner (a biographer of Mesmer) says that the pet canary "neither ate nor sang again, and was soon found dead in its cage." 59
Mesmer was not a poor man. At the time of his death he was employing three servants, and had a horse and carriage. Soon after his death and before the estate was settled, Dr. Wolfart asked the heirs for the glass armonica, which he said Mesmer had promised him. It was sent to Dr. Wolfart, and has been lost.60
14Mozart 584/19, trans. wz
46apparently he forgot those of 1779
54TODO???See his letter of April 14, 1785 to Franklin