He was the eldest son of the Rev. James Esdaile and Margaret Blair, born on 6 February 1808 in Montrose, Angus, Scotland. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating M.D. in 1830.
In 1830, he was appointed as assistant surgeon to the East India Company, and arrived in Calcutta, Bengal (then the capital of British India), in 1831. Having suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma since his adolescence, Esdaile thought that India's different climate would be of benefit. He suffered a total breakdown and was given an extended furlough from 1836 to 1838.
He returned from his furlough to Calcutta, and was soon appointed to the small Hooghly Hospital; and, as a consequence of this, was also responsible for the local Jail hospital.
On 4 April 1845, Esdaile performed his first mesmeric procedure:
- On 4th April 1845, [Esdaile] was treating a convict afflicted with double hydrocele. The drainage and injection of one side of the scrotum caused the patient such pain that Esdaile determined to try mesmerism upon him for the second operation…
- he was successful in rendering the convict analgesic, and at once began to experiment with mesmerism both as a means of producing analgesia in surgical cases, and as a method of treatment for medical ones.
By his own admission, Esdaile had never seen a mesmeric act; but, given the level of pain of this specific patient, and the understanding that he had gained from what he had read, it occurred to him that mesmerism might be of great value:
- Seeing him [the patient] suffering in this way, I turned to the native sub-assistant surgeon, an élève [student] of the medical college, and asked him if he had ever seen Mesmerism? He said, that he had seen it tried at the medical college, but without effect. Upon which I remarked, "I have a great mind to try it on this man, but as I never saw it practised, and know it only from reading, I shall probably not succeed." 
Esdaile did succeed.
As performed by Esdaile, the mesmeric act was an exhausting procedure:
- Esdaile's method was to make the patient lie down in dark room, wearing only a loin cloth, and [Esdaile would] repeatedly pass the hands in the shape of claws, slowly over the [patient's] body, within one inch of the surface, from the back of the head to the pit of the stomach, breathing gently on the head and eyes all the time [and] he seems to have sat behind the patient, leaning over him almost head to head and to have laid his right hand for extended periods on the pit of the stomach.
As a consequence, Esdaile, whose own health was far from good, soon began to delegate this exhausting work which, when necessary, would involve "[having] a patient magnetized for hours each day for ten or twelve days [to his] native assistants, saving his own strength for the performance of surgery".
In a short time, Esdaile had gained a wide reputation amongst the European and indigenous communities for painless surgery, especially in cases of the scrotal "tumours" that were endemic in Bengal at that time due to filariasis (similar to elephantiasis) that was transmitted by mosquitoes. Esdaile's mesmeric anaesthesia was extremely safe:
- I beg, to state, for the satisfaction of those who have not yet a practical knowledge of the subject, that I have seen no bad consequences whatever arise from persons being operated on when in the mesmeric trance. Cases have occurred in which no pain has been felt subsequent to the operation even; the wounds healing in a few days by the first intention; and in the rest, I have seen no indications of any injury being done to the constitution. On the contrary, it appears to me to have been saved, and that less constitutional disturbance has followed than under ordinary circumstances.
- There has not been a death among the cases operated on.
In 1846, Esdaile's work with mesmerism-assisted painless surgery at Hoogly had come to the attention of the Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir Herbert Maddocks. Maddocks appointed a committee of seven reputable (medical and non-medicial) officials to investigate Esdaile's claims. They submitted a positive report (on 9 October 1846), and a small hospital in Calcutta was put at his disposal in November 1846.
By 1848, a mesmeric hospital supported entirely by public subscription was opened in Calcutta especially for Esdaile's work. It was closed 18 months later by the Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir John Littler.
In 1848, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, appointed Esdaile to the position of Presidency Surgeon; and, in 1850, whilst not supporting the continuation of the mesmeric hospital in Calcutta, Dalhousie had so much respect for Esdaile and his work, that he appointed him to the position of Marine Surgeon.
Esdaile retired from the British East India Company in 1853, upon the expiration of his 20 years' contract. After briefly returning to Scotland he settled in Sydenham where he died on 10 January 1859. He is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.
Connection with hypnotism
Esdaile is thought by many to have been a pioneer in the use of hypnosis for surgical anaesthesia in the era immediately prior to James Young Simpson's discovery of chloroform. However, Esdaile had studied neither hypnotism nor Mesmerism himself.
Although some would trace the practice of hypnotherapy back to Faria, Gassner, and Hell, it is conventional to trace what we now know as hypnotism back to the Scottish surgeon James Braid's reaction to a public exhibition of mesmeric techniques given by Charles Lafontaine in Manchester on 13 November 1841.
There are some similarities between both the theory and practice of Victorian Mesmerism and hypnotism. Braid reported favourably upon the Government committee chaired by Atkinson's September 1846 report on Esdaile's use of Mesmerism in an Indian hospital, although only 30% of his clients actually exhibited no signs of pain during their operations. However, Braid also expressed reservations about Esdaile's claims of supernatural powers possessed by certain subjects, and the fact that his operations were yet to be demonstrated in British hospitals.
In theory I entirely differ from Dr. Esdaile. He is a Mesmerist – that is, he believes in the transmission of some peculiar occult influence from the operator to the patient, as the cause of the subsequent phenomena.
In fact, as this report shows, Esdaile did not generally "Mesmerise" the patients himself but employed native Indian boys to spend 2–8 hours per day with each patient in a darkened room, employing a technique that involved breathing on the patient's body. The resemblance to the conventional techniques of Mesmerism is therefore minimal.
- His first wife died during their voyage to India; his second wife died in India some years later. He was survived by his third wife, Eliza Weatherhead, whom he married sometime around 1851.
- The University of Edinburgh was also the alma mater of John Elliotson and James Braid.
- During this time he travelled extensively. His 1839 work was a result of these travels.
- Gauld (1992), p.223.
- Esdaile (1846), p.43.
- Gauld (1992), p.257.
- Gauld (1992), p.223. Esdaile himself speaks of how "it is exacting too much of human nature to expect people to sweat for hours pawing the air (1846, p.11, emphasis added).
- Some of these massive scrotal growths were as large as 112lbs/51kg (Gauld, 1992, p.222).
- Esdaile (1846), p.xxiv.
- Braid, “Facts and Observations as to the Relative Value of Mesmeric and Hypnotic Coma and Ethereal Narcotism, for the Mitigation or entire Prevention of Pain during Surgical Operations”, Medical Times, 13th February, 1847, vol. XV, 1846-47, pp. 381-382; continued vol. XVI., 27th February, 1847: 10-11
- Esdaile, J., Letters from the Red Sea, Egypt, and the Continent, (Calcutta), 1839.
- Ernst, W., "“Under the Influence” in British India: James Esdaile's Mesmeric Hospital in Calcutta, and its Critics", Psychological Medicine, Vol.25, No.6, (November 1995), pp. 1113–1123.
- Ernst, W., "Colonial Psychiatry, Magic and Religion. The Case of Mesmerism in British India", History of Psychiatry, Vol.15, No.57, Part 1, (March 2004), pp. 57–71.
- Esdaile, J., Mesmerism in India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, (London), 1846. [Often reprinted under the misleading and inaccurate title "Hypnotism in India"]
- Esdaile, J., Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance, With the Practical Application of Mesmerism in Surgery and Medicine, Hippolyte Bailliere, (London), 1852.
- Gauld, A., A History of Hypnotism, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge), 1992.
- Pulos, L., "Mesmerism Revisited: The Effectiveness of Esdaile's Techniques in the Production of Deep Hypnosis and Total Body Hypnoanaesthesia", American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol.22, No.4, (April 1980), pp. 206–211.
- Schneck, J.M., "James Esdaile, Hypnotic Dreams, and Hypnoanalysis, Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol.6, No.4, (Autumn 1951), pp. 491–495.
- Waltraud Ernst, Esdaile, James (1808–1859), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004 (Subscription required)