JOHANNA MAYER: In the late 1700s, Parisians were captivated by a new doctor who'd come to town practicing some very peculiar medicine. The doctor was bringing groups of patients into dimly lit, eerily decorated rooms, walking around them, waving his arms over their bodies. Sometimes he would touch them with a magnetic iron wand. Patients would cry, sweat, shriek, burst into laughter, or even convulse. But then, they appeared to emerge healed.
KATIE THORNTON: Some said it was all a hoax-- that the treatments only worked when people believed in them.
JOHANNA MAYER: Reporter Katie Thornton.
KATIE THORNTON: But patients were flocking to this new doctor. And one thing was for certain-- people were responding to his strange new treatments. He was said to have cured pain, delirium, bouts of rage, vomiting, even blindness. He even had the queen of France enrapt.
JOHANNA MAYER: Spoiler alert, it was not the magnetic wand that worked the magic. But there was something about this doctor and his unusual practices that did seem to work-- something that's still used in treatments today. This doctor had his patients mesmerized. That's actually what some people called it-- mesmerism-- because the doctor's name was Franz Anton Mesmer.
From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer.
KATIE THORNTON: And I'm Katie Thornton. And today, we're talking about the word mesmerize.
When you think of being mesmerized, you might not immediately think about a visit to the doctor's office. You probably think of a lover who renders you spellbound. That's how we've used the word mesmerized since 1862 when the protagonist in a London novel found himself daydreaming as if against his will about his love interest's eyes which mesmerized him. It was like the protagonist had no control. And that usage of the word makes sense because less than a century earlier, Dr. Mesmer was enchanting audiences with a practice that was all about giving up control.
JOHANNA MAYER: Before he became Mesmer the Mesmerizer, Franz Anton Mesmer was a conventional doctor in Vienna who stuck to accepted medical practices of the 1770s. And thanks to his marriage to a wealthy widow, he was well-connected-- all set up for success.
But everything changed when a young woman named Franzl Osterlin showed up at his office. As Mesmer remembered it, Franzl had a whole host of symptoms-- toothaches, convulsions, bouts of paralysis. Whatever was going on with Franzl, nothing seemed to cure her.
KATIE THORNTON: But Dr. Mesmer had an idea. Back in his student days, he'd been intrigued by Isaac Newton's law of gravity, which led him to his own theory of animal gravitation. Basically, Mesmer believed that there was an invisible fluid that flowed through all living things that was affected by gravity too. The sun, the moon, planets all tugged on it. It had tides that would ebb and flow. Sometimes, the fluid would get blocked, causing people to get sick. So if you wanted to cure someone, you just had to unclog their fluid.
JOHANNA MAYER: So here was Mesmer with this patient Franzl who was just not responding to the usual treatments-- a perfect opportunity to test out his theory. Even though his theory was all about gravity, his tools of choice to unblock his patients were magnets.
First, Mesmer got Franzl to swallow an iron-rich concoction, and then he placed magnets on her stomach and legs. It seems unlikely that this would have caused any physical sensation. But sure enough, as the story goes, as Dr. Mesmer did his thing, Franzl felt sharp pain traveling across her body which gave way to this burning heat in her joints. And as her sensations ebbed, they took her illness with them.
Soon after this big breakthrough, Mesmer went on a healing tour of Bavaria. His fame grew, and he picked up a whole slew of wealthy and high-status clients. But there was a little problem. Mesmer had gotten his magnets from an astronomer and Jesuit priest, and that priest's name-- perfectly-- was father Maximilian Hell. And while Mesmer was riding high on fame, Father Hell was feeling a little ripped off. He published a pamphlet saying that the magnets were his thing.
Like a good showman, Mesmer didn't take criticism as a setback. He's like, yeah, I got those magnets from Father Hell, but I would have used them anyway. And also, you know that thing that I called animal gravitation? What I really meant to say was animal magnetism.
KATIE THORNTON: And then came the kicker. Mesmer decided he didn't even need the magnets. He said, actually, anything could be magnetized. Bread, water, dogs, people, trees, you name it, he could magnetize it. He reasoned that the magnetism came from within and that some people-- most notably, himself-- had an abundance of this animal magnetism, and that he could pass his magnetism to others to get theirs flowing again. All this didn't make his patients disavow him. If anything, they became even more drawn to him.
But among the medical community, Mesmer was getting some side-eyes. And after one particularly notable case, their doubt came to a head. In 1777, Mesmer treated a famous 18-year-old piano virtuoso who had been blind for many years and claimed to have restored her sight. And for whatever reason, this case seemed to have been a step too far for the other doctors in Vienna. Some accused him of lying. Some even accused him of having an intimate relationship with his young patient. Whatever was going on, they didn't like it.
JOHANNA MAYER: And so, in 1778-- just four years after his breakout treatment of Franzl Osterlin-- Mesmer had lost all credibility with his peers in Vienna, and so he packed up his bags and headed to Paris.
Paris was a more open-minded city, especially if you were an aristocrat. Mesmer opened a fancy clinic in a posh part of town. He was still on the rocks of the medical community, but he didn't need them. Mesmer had connections. Mozart was a long-time friend. He was popular in the royal court of the French king, and Mesmer's practice boomed.
KATIE THORNTON: If doubters needed any further evidence to question Mesmer, they were given an avalanche of reasons while he was in Paris. Unable to keep up with his growing list of patients, Mesmer started treating people in batches, and it got weird.
The treatment rooms were dimly-lit, draped in dark curtains, and full of mirrors. Mesmer played spooky, ethereal music that filled the room. And at the center of the treatment room was what was called a baquet-- basically, a large wooden tub full of magnetized water, according to Mesmer. Sometimes the tub had iron rods sticking out of it. Patients would press the ailing parts of their bodies against them.
JOHANNA MAYER: Mesmer himself would be there wearing a purple silk robe, and he would walk circles around the patients who'd been seduced into a near stupor, waving a magnetic wand across their bodies, trying to move that mysterious fluid. Or he'd just use his hands because he was, you know, very magnetic.
And then the moment of healing would arrive. Mesmer called this moment the crisis. During one of these crises, a patient would have a violent break from their trance-like state. They might yell or convulse. There was even a separate padded room for extreme cases. The crises were disturbing to witness, but patients believed in their curative powers.
KATIE THORNTON: But the medical and scientific community, long skeptical of Mesmer, was reaching a breaking point. Sure, some people said they were healed, but not everyone. Mesmer's theory was still unproven, and it was strange. And even though Mesmer had plenty of support in the royal court, the king himself was not a fan.
In 1784, Louis XVI formed a commission to discredit the theory of animal magnetism once and for all. Only, Mesmer's critics didn't call it animal magnetism. They didn't want to give his theory that validity. They called it mesmerism. And to debunk mesmerism, the king enlisted some big names, like the father of modern chemistry Antoine Lavoisier, and Benjamin Franklin, who happened to be in Paris at the time.
JOHANNA MAYER: A lot of people thought Mesmer was a con man, but that really wasn't the thing that the Commission was trying to prove. They wanted to show that there was no such thing as animal magnetism. For one, if Mesmer's cures were real, that would change everything. It'd be the end of medicine as we know it. No more medical schools, no more fancy equipment. Anyone could cure anyone with just a wave of the hand and a dash of mesmerism.
But there were other unspoken reasons why Mesmer was being investigated. There was a sort of intimate sexual undercurrent to his treatments. It was very tactile treatment with lots of touching, and political cartoons of the day would depict him seducing his female patients. The Royal Commission didn't say anything about that in their public report.
EMILY OGDEN: But they produced a secret report which was sent just to the king.
KATIE THORNTON: That's Emily Ogden, an associate English professor at the University of Virginia. She wrote a book about Mesmer and his legacy.
EMILY OGDEN: And in that report, they say really unequivocally that they think that some women are having orgasms in the course of their treatment.
KATIE THORNTON: In late 1700s France, catering to women's sexuality was not a good look, especially when one of the women you were treating was the king's wife. I kid you not, Marie Antoinette was a frequent attendee of the baquet. And also, there was the fact that Mesmer was making a lot of money off of this stuff, and he was kind of sketchily territorial about his findings.
EMILY OGDEN: He sort of famously charged 100 gold Louis for the lessons in his techniques. And then you had to sign, in effect, a non-disclosure agreement and say you wouldn't tell anybody else. So there was another financial side to it.
KATIE THORNTON: Marie Antoinette once even offered to pay Mesmer to stay in France and teach us techniques to others-- a suggestion which of course Mesmer laughed off, with a reply asking for a much larger sum.
JOHANNA MAYER: But sex and money aside, the Commission's charge was to disprove the theory of animal magnetism. And they did it in a series of experiments. Like in one, they took this 12-year-old boy to an orchard and they told him one of these trees has been secretly magnetized. And when the boy approached one of the trees, his limbs went totally rigid and he passed out cold. Except, it wasn't the right tree. And also, pretty sure you can't magnetize trees. So it seems clear to the commissioners that the power of the magnets was all in his head.
EMILY OGDEN: Their argument is sort of interesting because it doesn't accuse the patients of fraud. It doesn't really even accuse Mesmer of fraud. It says that the effects the patients are experiencing are real, but they're not due to any fluid of animal magnetism. They're due to the power of what we would call suggestion-- what they called imagination. That because the patients believed in the effects that Mesmer said were going to happen, their imaginations became so excited as to affect their bodies, and that was what was producing the effects.
JOHANNA MAYER: Mesmer never backed down from his theory, and he never used the term mesmerize to describe what he was doing. That word belonged to his critics. He always maintained that it was animal magnetism. But what the Royal Commission showed was something Mesmer's critics have been suggesting the entire time that the benefits didn't have to do with animal magnetism, that it had to do with Mesmer himself.
In their report, the commissioners didn't call it what we might call it today-- a placebo. They called it the power of imagination. And they were amazed at what that power could do. A person, without receiving any medicine or poison, without anyone even touching them, just by really believing that something was true, a person could have convulsions, vomit, fall unconscious. That seemed worth paying attention to. One of the commissioners even suggested it could be the basis of a new science-- a science of how the mind can influence the body.
KATIE THORNTON: And so the Royal Commission-- created to prove that Mesmer's theory didn't hold water-- ended up giving a sort of twisted validity to his work. They showed that something without medical basis could still be effective because the power of the mind is effective.
JOHANNA MAYER: To generations of healers who followed in Mesmer's footsteps, the power of the mind wasn't a bad thing. In France, hypnotism arose in the wake of mesmerism. The main difference was that most of these early hypnotists didn't claim to have magnetic powers. They believed the power they wielded ultimately lay within the patients themselves.
One young psychologist named Sigmund Freud took Mesmer's practices and morphed them into what eventually became talk therapy, which of course has been shown to have huge benefits. And still today, hypnosis is used in some mainstream clinical settings as a kind of guided practice of intense relaxation and focus. Some people say those practices have a direct lineage to Mesmer, and some would say that the association has perhaps kept these practices from being taken seriously by some in the medical community.
KATIE THORNTON: Whether you think Mesmer was a quack or-- like some people-- you consider him the father of modern psychotherapy, the lesson of Mesmer's life is the same. The power of suggestion, the power of one's own mind can have real, physical impacts. Of course, that's not how Mesmer saw it. Despite the Royal Commission debunking animal magnetism, Mesmer maintained that his theory was real. He moved out of France and kept up his practice until he died.
JOHANNA MAYER: Between the lack of scientific backing, the money, the supposed sex, it's easy to think that Mesmer was just a con man. But we have to wonder, did Mesmer really believe the stuff?
EMILY OGDEN: I don't see why Mesmer himself wouldn't have been subject to a kind of counter-suggestion from his patients about his effectiveness. It seems kind of hard to imagine that most human beings could get dressed up in a purple robe and have crowds of influential people gather around them and go into fits as a result of one's own actions and not begin to think that one had a power of some sort.
JOHANNA MAYER: It seemed that Mesmer had mesmerized even himself.
This episode was produced by me-- Johanna Mayer-- and Katie Thornton. Our editor is Elah Feder. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and we had sound design from Chris Wood, who also mixed and mastered the episode. Fact checking by Michelle Harris and Danya Abdelhameid. Nadja Ortelt is our chief content officer. And when we asked her if we could hire Ira Flatow for some editorial consulting work, she said we just couldn't afford him.
EMILY OGDEN: He sort of famously charged 100 gold Louis for the lessons in his techniques. And then you had to sign, in effect, a non-disclosure agreement and say you wouldn't tell anybody else.
JOHANNA MAYER: See you next week with a new episode.