By J. N. LANGLEY, F.R.S.
SCATTERED about in the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are many records of the cure of divers human maladies in simple and mysterious-seeming ways. Valentin Greaterakes, in Charles II's reign, was, we are told, "famous for curing various diseases and distempers by a stroak of the hand only." His power, he thought, was a special gift from Heaven. Many people, however, were not slow to say that he had dealings with the devil. In some cases wonders were wrought by touching the affected parts of the patient with a magnet. Maxwell, who in 1679 published a short treatise on magnetic medicine, attributed the cures brought about by this, and by some other unusual forms of medical practice, to the accumulation of a subtile fluid in the body of the patient. This subtile fluid was diffused through all things in nature; a fortunate few among men had an inborn power of controlling its distribution. Such men could cure all diseases; they could indeed, he says, by adding to their own proper quantum of fluid, make themselves live forever, were not the influence of the stars adverse.
In 1775 the theory of animal magnetism was put forward in Vienna by Friedrich Anton Mesmer. Neither his theories nor his facts differ very greatly from those of some of his predecessors. There exists, he said, in nature a universal fluid; in virtue of this, the human body possesses "properties analogous to those of a magnet; there are to be distinguished in it poles equally different and opposite, which may even be communicated, changed, destroyed, and restored; even the phenomenon of inclination is observed therein." By means of this magnetic fluid all the maladies of man could be healed. A few years later Mesmer left Vienna for Paris. At first he magnetized his patients by gazing steadily at them, or by means of "passes"; but, as patients became more numerous, he brought them into a proper magnetic condition by other methods, often of a very fantastic nature. The patients did not, when magnetized, all show the same symptoms: some passed into a heavy sleep, some became insensible to touch, or even to stimuli ordinarily painful; some became cataleptic, some were seized with local or general convulsions. This last condition was called a crisis, and was the triumph of the mesmerizer, the moment when the disease was considered to be forcibly expelled from the system. Nowadays it is the last state a physician would care to produce in a patient.
For a time Mesmer's success was enormous. His admirers subscribed for him a sum of nearly 350,000 francs, receiving in return
- Abridged from an address delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, March 14, 1884