Was this hypnotic health craze an elaborate hoax or a medical breakthrough?

In 18th-century Vienna and Paris, mesmerism was all the rage —with Marie Antoinette among its followers—but its success aroused skeptics, including Benjamin Franklin.

Wearing gold slippers and a lavender silk robe, physician Franz Anton Mesmer moved slowly around the silent, dimly lit room while waving a metal wand. A baquet, a large oak tub of magnetized water, sat in the middle of the richly appointed salon. Mesmer’s patients surrounded the baquet and pressed its protruding metal rods to the afflicted areas of their bodies. Ethereal notes of a glass harmonica, its sound resembling that of clinking glasses, tinkled as incense wafted through the air. After a flick of his wand or a touch of his hand, some of Mesmer’s patients fell into trances, cathartic and curative “crises” that could resemble violent convulsions, fits of laughter, or piercing shrieks.

Mesmer’s unorthodox treatment style began in late 1774. For two years, he had applied the standard medical remedies of the 18th century, including blistering and bleeding, to a 28-year-old patient, Franziska Österlin, whose maladies ranged from earaches to melancholy. Finding traditional tactics unsuccessful, Mesmer followed the suggestion of Jesuit priest and astronomer Maximilian Hell, who attached magnets to his patients to treat disease. Mesmer applied this same magnetic therapy to Österlin and pronounced her cured. (Read more: Bloodletting is still being practiced in some countries today.)

Mesmer asserted in his doctoral dissertation that the gravitational force of the planets, sun, and moon also affected the human body. But after his encounter with Father Hell, Mesmer revised his “animal gravitation” theory to one of “animal magnetism.” This universal force was not external gravitation but rather an internal force. Mesmer began to base his medical practice on his belief that an invisible fluid ran through all living things. Disease resulted when the fluid’s flow became blocked. Health could be restored through contact with a conductor of animal magnetism. The magnets in Father Hell’s therapy were superfluous, Mesmer argued, as Mesmer himself, or any object that he magnetized, could restore the flow.

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet