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Pronounced /ˈmɛzmərʌɪz/Help with pronunciation

This perpetuates the name of the eighteenth-century physician Franz Mesmer of Vienna. He believed that a magnetic force flowed from the stars to act on us all and that diseases were caused by blockages stopping the magnetic fluid flowing through the body. He called the force “animal magnetism”, a term we still sometimes use for people with strong personalities.

He tried acting on this force with magnets — he persuaded one of his early patients, for example, to swallow iron filings and then passed a magnet over her legs. Later — he’d moved to Paris by then — he created his baquet, a large tub filled with iron filings and magnetised water that 20 people could sit round (we know that water can’t be magnetised, but he didn’t). Projecting iron rods were provided for the patients to grasp or press to the affected spot.

In his salon, quiet music played and perfumes scented the air. Dr Mesmer would enter, dressed in a long robe of lilac-coloured silk, richly embroidered with gold flowers, holding a white magnetic rod in his hand. He treated every patient at the baquet with gestures, passes of his white rod, murmured words and searching looks.

Unfortunately, he became too popular, especially with the French queen, Marie Antoinette. Two politically motivated enquiries in 1784, one headed by Dr Guillotin of head-chopping fame, the other by Benjamin Franklin (the American ambassador to France at the time), concluded it was all done by manipulating the imagination of patients. In essence, Mesmer was, without realising it, putting his patients into a trance and giving them post-hypnotic suggestions to clear up psychosomatic ailments. All that stuff about iron bars and animal magnetism was irrelevant.

Mesmer’s reputation never recovered, but his name entered the language and later became an alternative term for hypnotism.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 31 Dec 2005