Historians view Franz Mesmer as the father of alternate medicine. Mesmer give his name to mesmerism, seen as an alternate approach to conventional medical practice.


Franz Mesmer was born in 1734 in a village near Lake Constance. He was educated in Vienna where he qualified in medicine. While in Vienna, Mesmer wrote a thesis entitled ‘De Planetarum Influxu’. In this work Mesmer attempted to show how the planets exercised an influence on human tissue both in health and disease. Mesmer claimed that a mysterious fluid, which he called ‘animal magnetism’, had an influence on the body’s health and that the planets influenced how ‘animal magnetism’ worked. Mesmer used magnetic therapy to treat patients. This entailed Mesmer laying his hands on a sick patient. Mesmer recorded that this type of treatment had a remarkable effect.


Mesmer’s marriage to a wealthy lady allowed him to move in the higher social circles of Vienna. He associated with the rich and famous of the city and they took to his beliefs. Mesmer achieved fame, or some would argue notoriety, after he partially restored the sight of a young girl called Maria Paradies who had been blind since the age of three. Some were very impressed with Mesmer regarding what he did to Maria. Others were less sure and a number of doctors in Vienna started to intrigue against him arguing that Maria’s treatment was based around quack remedies and a quack approach. The word ‘quack’ would have had some meaning among the medical world then as it alluded to the ‘quack doctors’ who sort out patients during the 1665 Great Plague in London. In fact the people who took up the work as a ‘quack doctor’ did it for the money they could earn by finding a plague victim – but they were hardly doctors. Therefore for Mesmer to be accused of quack remedies was his enemy’s way of basically stating that he really did not know what he was either doing or talking about.


The intrigue was such that Mesmer moved to Paris. Here he found even more fame and fortune. Mesmer was known as the physician who could cure pain that other physicians could not. He induced a sick patient into a trance. The end result was that the patient felt no pain once the treatment ended. Mesmer was patronised by the great and good of Paris and he made a considerable fortune. He enjoyed the patronage of Marie Antoinette and moved in such circles accordingly. Louis XIV offered the sum of 20,000 francs simply to remain in Paris with a further 10,000 francs if he opened a school that taught about the use of magnetism in medicine. However, he had also made jealous enemies among medical practitioners in Paris and he declined the king’s offer. Instead he moved to Spa in Belgium. However, such was his fame and perceived ability, that thousands of admirers agitated for his return and raised 340,000 francs to tempt him back to Paris.


Mesmer treated the very wealthy of France and even very rich aristocrats had to make an appointment to see him weeks in advance. Mesmer’s treatment was probably unlike anyone else at the time. A patient would be led into a consulting room. Mesmer’s wealth meant that such rooms could be fabulously furnished with the most opulent and grandest French furniture. His treatment rooms only seemed to emphasise to his patients just how good he was. Why would the great and good of France use him for medical cures if he was not successful at what he did? Mesmer’s success bred success.


A patient would be required to sit around a bath of dilute sulphuric acid out of which curved iron bars protruded. The lights in the room would be dimmed and perfume would be used to create a certain atmosphere. If the patient was by himself, he would grasp the iron bars. If it was a group treatment in one of the enlarged baths, they would hold each other’s hands. Mesmer would then appear and touch each patient in different places on the body. They would fall into a trance. Once in a trance Mesmer would tell them that their pain had gone. Once they had come out of their trance, many were convinced through this suggestibility that their pain had indeed gone. To some, Mesmer possessed a miraculous ability to cure pain. To others, especially in the medical world, he was either a quack, at best, or a charlatan at worst.


A commission was set up to examine his work. It was made up of nine men – all from either the Academy of Medicine or the Academy of Science. Two men on it were Benjamin Franklin and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. They studied Mesmer’s system of treatment and their final verdict was not favourable. The report stated:


“Nothing proves the existence of magnetic animal fluid; imagination without magnetism may produce convulsions; magnetism without imagination produces nothing.”


While the report was not favourable to his work, it never labelled Mesmer a charlatan as some of his detractors believed. There seemed to be a genuine belief that Mesmer acted in good faith and many of his clients continued to believe so despite the report.


It may well be that Mesmer was the first alternate practitioner. In bygone centuries, it would have been dangerous to go against established medical practice as the influence of the Church in mainland Europe was strong and the definition of ‘doing the work of the Devil’ was far too vague and wide-ranging. He was also highly successful financially and this by itself may well have bred jealousy among is fellow practitioners. Many of his patients testified that at the start of his treatment they felt pain but at the end of it that pain had gone. For those patients that would have been the be all and end all of how to define success. The report did not dent Mesmer’s popularity and the treatment of patients by what was effectively a process of hypnotism and suggestibility has its supporters to this day and “is the most important aspect of Mesmer’s therapy.” (Roberto Margotta in ‘History of Medicine’)