Mesmer, Franz Anton

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Mesmer, Franz Anton (1734-1815): French Scientist.

Mesmer is widely recognized as the founder of dynamic psychiatry. His hypothesis that the universe was permeated by a universal fluid, and that illness arose as a consequence of an imbalance of the flow of this fluid in the individual, led to him to devise a cure by which he would redirect this fluid through the principles of magnetism. Although his techniques would have an immense impact on the later development of hypnosis and psychoanalysis, Mesmer himself was a highly controversial figure that many viewed as charlatan.

Mesmer was born in 1734 in Isnang (Germany), a small town on lake Constance. He completed medical school in Vienna in 1766 after completing a dissertation that would establish the trajectory of his life’s work. His dissertation described the influence of the planets on human illness and disease, and would thus form the groundwork for his later theory of the influence of universal matter upon human health.

In 1774, after purportedly establishing a correlation between a patient’s psychological crisis and astronomical movements, Mesmer, by his own account, was finally able to successfully produce an “artificial tide” through various techniques with magnetism, redirect the universal fluid, and thus effect a cure. The craze of Mesmerism in Paris preceded his own arrival there in 1778. The mass hysteria of Parisian population for Mesmerism led the King to establish a committee for the scientific analysis of Mesmerism. Although the committee concluded this phenomena was largely the effect of the imagination, Mesmerism and its variants spread throughout Europe and America. Although the phenomena of Mesmerism had a great impact on Romanticism, and to a lesser extent on German Idealism, its most lasting influence, particularly its understanding of the rapport established between doctor and patient, can be understood as a key historical antecedent to hypnosis and psychoanalysis.

Further Readings:

Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France, 1968.

F. Scott Scribner