Mesmer, Franz Anton

Franz Anton MesmerFranz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician and Freemason whose method of “magnetic healing” was based on alchemical principles and led to the development of hypnotherapy. To many of his contemporaries, Franz Anton Mesmer’s healing seemed magical. His use of magnets and the power of suggestion Demonstrated the ability of WILL and consciousness to affect physical health.

Mesmer was born at Iznang on Lake Constance, Austria, in 1734. Initially he intended a career in the church, but he discovered that he had a gift for mathematics and science, and so he decided to pursue medicine at the University of Vienna. There he studied the works of Paracelsus, JEAN BAPTISA VAN HELMONT, Robert Fludd, and other scientist/alchemists. He also borrowed from the ideas of Richard Mead, an English physician who in 1704 published a treatise on the power of the SUN and the Moon on the human body.

Mesmer interpreted the prevailing theory of the times that a magnetic fluid permeates and links all things and beings, including people, on Earth and in the heavens. He believed that the human body has a natural magnetic bipolarity and that sickness and health were influenced by the balance of the vital fluid within the body.

Mesmer’s thesis, De Planetarum Influxu (“On the Influence of the Planets”), caught the attention of Father Maximilian Hehl, a Jesuit priest, court astrologer to Empress Maria Theresa and professor of astronomy at Vienna University. Hehl also believed in a planetary magnetism that influenced physical health and used magnets with the shape of body organs to correct magnetic imbalances. He gave some magnets to Mesmer, who qualified as a physician in 1765 and used the magnets in spectacular healings in which he placed magnets on patients to end their pain. Mesmer surmised that his own body was a magnet, for he noticed that when once bleeding a patient, the flow of Blood increased when he approached and decreased when he left. He published his theory in 1775; the public reacted enthusiastically and patients began to seek him out.

A few years later, Mesmer observed the work of an exorcist, Father Johann Gassner, who maintained that all illness was caused by Demoniacal Possession and could be cured only by Exorcism. This led Mesmer to the discovery that he could cure without the help of Hehl’s magnets. The vital force or healing energy could be transmitted directly from healer to patient through touch or with the help of IRON rods or wands.

Mesmer called this universal life force animal magnetism. He envisioned the force as an invisible, fluidic, magnetic substance that permeates the universe and emanates from the PLANETS, the stars, and the Moon and from human bodies. The fluid links all things. An imbalance of the fluid in the body creates illness, which can be corrected with the application of appropriate magnetic forces. Animal magnetism may be transferred from a healer, who has an excess of it in his nervous system, to a patient.

Throughout the latter part of the 18th century and for part of the 19th century, the term animal magnetism referred to Mesmer’s method of healing, which consisted of a laying on of hands, staring fixedly into the eyes of the patient, and making slow passes in front of the patient’s face with hands or a wand. The healers themselves usually were called magnetists, sometimes mesmerists, who magnetized or mesmerized their patients. In addition to curing ailments, magnetists could put their patients into a magnetized sleep, which made operations painless.

The magnetized sleep produced certain side effects: Clairvoyance, telepathy, mediumistic ability, hallucinations, suggestability, and catalepsy. Mesmer left these phenomena largely unexplored, concentrating instead on the healing aspects of animal magnetism. The serious study of the side effects was taken up by hypnotists in the latter 19th century.

Mesmer fell out of favour with Hehl and the Viennese medical profession, but his esteem increased with patients, who sought him for cures. In 1778 he moved to Paris to set up a fashionable hospital that was more like a Séance parlor than a medical facility. The rooms were lit with low light, perfumed, and decorated with Mirrors, crystal objects, beautiful paintings, and handsome clocks. Mesmer himself seemed more like a WIZARD than a physician, dressed in purple robes and carrying an iron wand. While a chamber orchestra played soft music— Mesmer was a patron of Mozart—he and his assistants would move among the patients, waving hands and wands, stroking them and magnetizing them. Many phenomenal cures were effected, made all the more mysterious and awesome by the hysterics and convulsions of his patients as they were cured. Rich and poor alike descended upon the clinic. Mesmer entertained well, hosting coffee socials and carrying on lively conversations with his clients.

So many patients came to his clinic that Mesmer had to begin to treat them en masse. He created a device call the baquet, a round wooden bathtub that he filled with “magnetized water” and iron filings. As many as 30 iron rods protruded from the lid of the tub; they were placed on as many patients on whatever part of the body required healing. The patients were then tied to each other with moistened rope, forming a magnetic chain. Patients called the tub Mesmer’s magic bath.

Mesmer’s success earned him the animosity of the medical academy. Louis XVI was a supporter of Mesmer, but he agreed under pressure from the academy to establish two commissions to investigate mesmer and animal magnetism. The first, which published its findings in 1784, found no evidence to support the existence of animal magnetism and recommended that members of the Faculty of Medicine who practiced it be expelled. The second commission supported the first.

Mesmer’s fortunes declined. A doctor consulted him with a phony illness, allowed Mesmer to “heal” him, and then accused him of fraud.

Mesmer fell into further discredit with his peers when one of his staunchest supporters, Antoine Court De Gebelin (see TAROT), died while sitting at a baquet. But the general public continued to patronize him, and Mesmer maintained his clinic until 1789 when the French Revolution forced him to flee the country. He went to Karlsruhe and then to Vienna in 1793. He was accused of being a French spy and was imprisoned for two months. Upon his release, Mesmer returned to Lake Constance, where he died in 1815.


  • Douglas, Alfred. Extrasensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1976.
  • Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic and the Occult. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.


The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.