Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Why is a guillotine like the English dictionary

We owe the word "mesmerize" to Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), a physician from Vienna who wrote a thesis in 1767 on the influence of celestial gravity on human bodies, according to which the rotation of heavenly bodies had an influence on physiology analogous to the tides caused by the moon, and was the explanation for many diseaes.

Having read about the fashionable clinical experiments with magnets that were being carried out (apparently) successfully at that time, Mesmer decided to try them out on some patients. For this purpose he designed and built a massive wood and metal device around which he would put people connected to the thing by ropes -patients who were reported to have horrible visions and hallucinations that Mesmer of course could cure. He thought that magnetism was a form of gravity and that therefore, by putting patients close to powerful magnets, he was mimicking gravity by creating a mini gravitational field which subsequently would have an effect on their bodies. Later, he claimed to have discovered a previously unknown form of magnetism, the “animal magnetism” -this might actually sound like a vulgar perfume advert, but was actually a more ethereal concept, since "anima" is the Latin word for soul. Despite the soul not being physical, its magnetic condition was a physical property, and therefore the animal magnetism should work in the same way a magnet would do, when performed by a trained doctor. So from that moment Mesmer stopped being bothered to use magnets and started “healing” patients by passing hands up and down over their body while fixedly looking into their eyes, always with very good results according to his own reports.

Mesmer's device, with which he cured so many people -until he discovered his own hands had superpowers

These unorthodox procedures gave Mesmer a very bad name in Vienna, and he felt forced to move to Paris where he was very welcomed not only by ill people with no other medical options available, but also by healthy members of the high society who had plenty of money, plenty of time and an appetite for thrill, partly after knowing about the seizures and even trances patients experienced during the sessions. It was in Paris where his consultations became proper performances: despite having previously announced that the "magnetic healing" could be carried out by any doctor properly trained, he kept the details of his method secret and started appearing on stage (literally, as he in fact would organise public gigs in theatres) in semidarkness, while incense was burned, dressed as a wizard with stars and alchemical symbols embroidered on his clothes, and even a magic wand sometimes -no, I'm not joking. The seizures, hysterical laughter, screams, vomits and convulsions the patients experienced were supposed to bring about the cure, and the show would finish with Mesmer playing music on a glass harmonica. Which by the way has a quite hilarious story I should tell you about another time.

It was a commission formed in 1785 by Guillotin, Benjamin Franklin, and Lavoisier among others (yeah that Guillotin, that Benjamin Franklin, and yes, Lavoisier the chemist), who investigated Mesmer's methods and claimed that the cures should be related to the patients' "imagination" -what we'd call the placebo effect nowadays- since if the therapy was performed without the patients being aware, no healing or even trance would happen to them. It is quite ironic the fact that Benjamin Franklin, having not only founded the United States and participated in scientific commisions, was also the inventor of the glass harmonica Mesmer loved.

Mesmer mesmerizing

I really think that this guy, like many tricksters nowadays, really believed in what he was doing... except his beliefs lasted for a while only. The 18th-19th centuries saw plenty of experimentation on bullsh#t that nowadays seems very obvious, but that had to be proven and tested at the time, just in order to get to the vision we have of things now, sort of “what if”.  That's why the facts of concluding that magnetism is a form of gravity or that the soul produces magnetic forces, were great even if they were to be proved wrong. But something very unscientific must have happened when Mesmer started to dress up as a wizard and burn incense for the public.

His reputation kept diminishing in the eyes of not only the scientific community but many people with common sense who would for instance joke about the dangers of letting Mesmer mesmerize people without knowing his possibly "untoward" intentions. However, the popularity of the method would rise throughout Europe at the same rate, mostly due to what the scientists critizised: the performances involving the combination of magic, occult forces, secret methods, and the seizures suffered by patients. Suddenly, Europe was full of disciples of Mesmer who had supposedly learnt the techniques directly from him, and they all made good money for some years.
Caricature of Mesmer, depicted as a donkey with his pockets full of money, at the moment of making use of all his "animal magnetism" in order to carry out the "sexual healing" (hello Marvin) on a patient

There are things that, sadly, never change. Dressing up as a jerk that pretends to cure people and getting paid for it is one of them.

But what the hell, not many people have a word created after their names!

You can read more about this guy and the ones who came after him, in the "Going Unconscious" chapter of my beloved book "Hidden Histories of Science" (edited by Robert. B. Silvers).
More on the glass harmonica here.

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