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Animal magnetism was the name given by the German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to what he believed to be an invisible natural force exerted by animals. He believed that the force could have physical effects, including healing. He tried persistently but without success to achieve scientific recognition of his theories.
The theory attracted numerous followers in Europe and the United States and was popular into the nineteenth century. For about seventy-five years from its beginnings in 1779 it was an important speciality in medicine, and continued to have some influence for about another fifty years. Hundreds of books were written on the subject between 1766 and 1925. Today it is almost entirely forgotten.
Animal magnetism is still practiced as a form of alternative medicine in some countries. Magnetic practices are not recognized as part of medical science.
A tendency emerged amongst British magnetizers to call their clinical techniques mesmerism; they wanted to distance themselves from the theoretical orientation of animal magnetism that was based on the concept of "magnetic fluid". At the time, some magnetizers attempted to channel what they thought was a magnetic "fluid"; and, sometimes, they attempted this with the "laying on of hands". Reported effects included various feelings: intense heat, trembling, trances, and seizures.
Many practitioners came from a scientific basis, such as Joseph Philippe François Deleuze (1753–1835), a French physician, anatomist, gynecologist, and physicist. One of his pupils was Théodore Léger (1799–1853), who wrote that the label "mesmerism" was "most improper." (Léger moved to Texas around 1836.)
MESMERISM, of all the names proposed [to replace the term animal magnetism], is decidedly the most improper; for, in the first place, no true science has ever been designated by the name of a man, whatever be the claims he could urge in his favor; and secondly, what are the claims of Mesmer for such an honor? He is not the inventor of the practical part of the science, since we can trace the practice of it through the most remote ages; and in that respect, the part which he introduced has been completely abandoned. He proposed for it a theory which is now [viz., 1846] exploded, and which, on account of his errors, has been fatal to our progress. He never spoke of the phenomena which have rehabilitated our cause among scientific men; and since nothing remains to be attributed to Mesmer, either in the practice and theory, or the discoveries that constitute our science, why should it be called MESMERISM?
In 1784 a French Royal Commission appointed by Louis XVI studied Mesmer's magnetic fluid to try to establish it by scientific evidence. The Commission included Majault, Benjamin Franklin, Jean Sylvain Bailly, J. B. Le Roy, Sallin, Jean Darcet, de Borey, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Antoine Lavoisier, Poissonnier, Caille, Mauduyt de la Varenne, Andry, and de Jussieu.
Whilst the Commission agreed that the cures claimed by Mesmer were indeed cures, the commission also concluded there was no evidence of the existence of his magnetic fluid, and that its effects derived from either the imaginations of its subjects or through charlatanry.
Mesmerism and hypnosis
Abbé Faria was one of the disciples of Franz Anton Mesmer who continued with Mesmer’s work following the conclusions of the Royal Commission. In the early 19th century, Abbé Faria introduced oriental hypnosis to Paris. Faria conducted experiments to prove that “no special force was necessary for the production of the mesmeric phenomena such as the trance, but that the determining cause lay within the subject himself;” in other words, that it worked purely by the power of suggestion.
Hypnosis originates from the practice of Mesmerism, being an attempt at what the surgeon James Braid described as "rational mesmerism". Braid based his methods of hypnotism directly on the practice of Mesmerism, but applied a more rational explanation for how the process worked. The term “hypnotism” was coined and introduced by Braid.
The vital fluid and the practice of animal magnetism
A 1791 London publication explains the Mesmer’s theory of the vital fluid :
"Modern philosophy has admitted a plenum or universal principle of fluid matter, which occupies all space; and that as all bodies moving in the world, abound with pores, this fluid matter introduces itself through the interstices and returns backwards and forwards, flowing through one body by the currents which issue therefrom to another, as in a magnet, which produces that phenomenon which we call Animal Magnetism. This fluid consists of fire, air and spirit, and like all other fluids tends to an equilibrium, therefore it is easy to conceive how the efforts which the bodies make towards each other produce animal electricity, which in fact is no more than the effect produced between two bodies, one of which has more motion than the other; a phenomenon serving to prove that the body which has most motion communicates it to the other, until the medium of motion becomes an equilibrium between the two bodies, and then this equality of motion produces animal electricity."
According to an anonymous writer of a series of letters published by the editor John Pearson in 1790, animal magnetism can cause a wide range of effects ranging from vomiting to what is termed the "crisis." The purpose of the treatment (inducing the "crisis") was to shock the body into convulsion in order to remove obstructions in the humoral system that were causing sicknesses. Furthermore, this anonymous supporter of animal magnetism purported that the "crisis" created two effects: first, a hypnotic state in which the patient would be "possessed of his senses, yet cease to be an accountable creature," and second, so-called "unobstructed vision" which would allow the hypnotized subject to see through objects. A patient under crisis was believed to be able to see through the body and find the cause of illness, either in themselves or in other patients.
The Marques of Puységur’s miraculous healing of a young man named Victor in 1784 was attributed to, and used as evidence in support of, this "crisis" treatment. The Marques was allegedly able to hypnotize Victor and, while hypnotized, Victor was said to have been able to speak articulately and diagnose his own sickness.
Social skepticism in the Romantic Era
The study of animal magnetism spurred the creation of the Societies of Harmony in France, where members pay to join and learn the practice of magnetism. Dr John Bell was a member of the Philosophical Harmonic Society of Paris and was certified by the society to lecture and teach animal magnetism in England. The existence of the societies transformed animal magnetism into a secretive art. Practitioners and lecturers did not reveal the techniques of the practice based on the society members having paid for instruction, and the idea that it was unfair to reveal the practice to others for free. Although the heightened secrecy of the practice contributed to the skepticism about it, many supporters and practitioners of animal magnetism touted the ease and possibility for everyone to acquire the skills to perform its techniques.
The popularization of animal magnetism was denounced and ridiculed by newspaper journals and theatre during the Romantic Era. Many deemed animal magnetism to be nothing more than a theatrical falsity or quackery. In a 1790 publication, an editor presented a series of letters written by an avid supporter of animal magnetism and included his own thoughts in an appendix stating: "No fanatics ever divulged notions more wild and extravagant; no impudent empiric ever retailed promises more preposterous, or histories of cures more devoid of reality, than the tribe of Magnetisers." 
The novelist and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald wrote the farce Animal Magnetism in the late 1780s. The plot revolved around multiple love triangles and the absurdity of animal magnetism. The following passage mocks the medical prowess of those qualified only as Mesmerists:
Doctor: They have refused to grant me a diploma—forbid me to practice as a physician, and all because I don't know a parcel of insignificant words; but exercise my profession according to the rules of reason and nature; Is it not natural to die, then if a dozen or two of my patients have died under my hands, is not that natural? …
Although the Doctor's obsession with the use of animal magnetism, not merely to cure but to force his ward to fall in love with him, made for a humorous storyline, Inchbald’s light-hearted play commented on what society perceived as threats posed by the practice.
Dr De Mainanduc brought animal magnetism to England in 1787 and promulgated it into the social arena. In 1785, he had published proposals to the ladies of Britain to establish a "Hygean Society" or Society of Health, by which they would pay to join and enjoy his treatments. As both popularity and skepticism increased, many became convinced that animal magnetism could lead to sexual exploitation of women. Not only did the practice involve close personal contact via the waving of hands over the body, but people were concerned that the animal magnetists could hypnotize women and direct them at will.
The French revolution catalyzed existing internal political friction in Britain in the 1790s; a few political radicals used animal magnetism as more than just a moral threat but also a political threat. Among many lectures warning society against government oppression, Samuel Taylor Coleridge also wrote:
William Pitt, the great political Animal Magnetist, ... has most foully worked on the diseased fancy of Englishmen ... thrown the nation into a feverish slumber, and is now bringing it to a crisis which may convulse mortality!
Major politicians and people in power were accused by radicals to be practicing animal magnetism on the general population.
In his article "Under the Influence: Mesmerism in England", Roy Porter notes that James Tilly Matthews suggested that the French were infiltrating England via animal magnetism. Matthews believed that "magnetic spies" would invade England and bring it under subjection by transmitting waves of animal magnetism to subdue the government and people. Such an invasion from foreign influences was perceived as a radical threat.
Mesmerism and spiritual healing practices
Today scholars[who?] believe Mesmerism to share a concept of life force or energy with such Asian practices such as reiki and qigong. The practical and theoretical positions of such practices are on whole substantially different from those of mesmerism.
During the Romantic period, Mesmerism produced enthusiasm and inspired horror in the spiritual and religious context. Though discredited as a credible medical practice by many, mesmerism created a venue for spiritual healing. Some animal magnetists advertised their practices by stressing the "spiritual rather than physical benefits to be gained from animal magnetism" and were able to gather a good clientele from among the spiritually inspired population.
Many researchers, among them Catholics, Protestants, spiritists, and other writers, claim that Jesus was the greatest of all magnetizers, and that the source of his miracles was animal magnetism.
Sporadic research into animal magnetism was conducted in the 20th century, and the results published; for example, B. Grad wrote three papers related to the subject between 1961 and 1976.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1879 American Cyclopædia article Animal Magnetism.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Animal magnetism.|
- Anton Mesmer, "Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism" (1779), from: Binet, A. & Féré, C. Animal Magnetism, New York: Appleton and Co., 1888; web archive
- The Baron Dupotet de Sennevoy. An Introduction to the Study of Animal Magnetism. London: Saunders & Otley, 1838; full text
- William Gregory. Letters to a Candid Inquirer on Animal Magnetism. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1851; full text
- Charles Poyen. Animal magnetism. Boston: Weeks, Jordan & co., 1837; full text