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timeline: 1784
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photo: reenactment of Mesmerism
Reenactment of a man in the hypnotic state known as mesmerism
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What is the derivation of the word "mesmerize" and what does it have to do with Ben Franklin?

In the early 1770s, Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician and theologian, developed a technique that he claimed could cure a variety of physical and mental ailments. His theory, called "animal magnetism," was based upon the idea that there existed "magnetic fluids" in nature, which could be used to rid the body and mind of many diseases. While in Vienna, he purported to have "cured" a young pianist of hysterical blindness through his magnetic therapies.

After having worn out his welcome in Vienna, Mesmer traveled to Paris in 1781, where he became very popular among the upper classes and members of the French court. Mesmer held special salons with dim lighting and soft music. Mesmer would move around the room and use his hands to channel invisible magnetic fluids to his followers. The combination of light, music, and incantations from Mesmer produced a form of hypnotism or "mesmerism."

Many influential people flocked to Mesmer to be cured of all kinds of problems, real and imagined. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a follower of Mesmer, as was the French queen Marie Antoinette. Mozart performed a musical play in Mesmer's honor, and Mesmer frequently was invited to the French court to perform for the queen. Because of his popularity at court, Mesmer became quite a celebrity in France and attracted a great deal of attention.

King Louis XVI, who was not as taken with Mesmer as his wife and other members of his court, commissioned the French Academy of Sciences to investigate Mesmer and his therapeutic claims. The academy appointed a number of prominent scientists and citizens to the investigating committee. Among the members were scientists Antoine Lavoisier, Paris mayor Jean Bailly, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, and, of course, Benjamin Franklin. Ironically, both Lavoisier and Bailly met their deaths on the beheading device named after Dr. Guillotin.

Because of Franklin's poor health, the committee conducted their tests and investigations at Franklin's residence in Passy. Mesmer attempted to distance himself from the proceedings by sending an associate, Dr. Charles Deslon, in his place. It was a clever ploy because if Deslon succeeded, Mesmer could take the credit; if Deslon failed, Mesmer could blame his assistant.

Deslon set about demonstrating how animal magnetism worked. One of the most dramatic tests involved "magnetizing" a tree and then having a subject identify the tree that had the most magnetic force. Deslon prepared one of the trees, then blindfolded the subject, a twelve-year-old boy, and directed him to embrace several trees in Franklin's garden. The boy reported various sensations and said that the magnetic force was getting stronger, even though he was moving farther from the tree that Deslon had magnetized. The experiment ended when the boy fainted.

The commission's public report concluded that there was no scientific evidence of animal magnetism and that the cures attributed to it may have either happened through a normal remission of the problem or that the cure was some form of self-delusion.

Mesmer's attempts to avoid the commission's work failed, and he quickly lost popularity. He left France and died years later in Switzerland. Although Franklin and his colleagues debunked many of Mesmer's practices and theories, Mesmerism continued to be practiced for another century or so and had a resurgence in England during the late Victorian period.

Whether he was a charlatan, a showman, or a true believer in his own practices, Franz Mesmer is credited as being one of the fathers of modern day hypnosis and psychotherapy.


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