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Of the various political questions that King Louis XVI had to face in pre-revolutionary France, there were few that perplexed him more than what to do about the charismatic Franz Anton Mesmer.
Almost immediately after the controversial Dr. Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778, his medical practice began catering to the rich and famous, many of whom were members of King Louis' court (including Queen Marie Antoinette). Paris society was soon split on whether Mesmer was a quack who had left his native Germany due to scandal or whether he had made a revolutionary medical discovery.
All of the controversy focused on Mesmer's ideas concerning what he called the "animal magnetism" that existed in all living creatures which Mesmer claimed to have discovered through his experiments on the effect of magnetism on humans. His first triumph was in 1774 when he reportedly cured a patient fter having her swallow an iron compound and then passing magnets over her body. His patients themselves reporting feeling streams of invisible fluid passing through their bodies while he carried out his magnetic treatments and Mesmer declared this as proof of animal magnetism at work. He quickly discarded the magnets completely after concluding that the hand motions he used while treating patients were more important. He argued that animal magnetism was completely separate from the "mineral magnetism" of lodestones and was linked to the natural life energy found in all living creatures. Mesmer also claimed that disease was caused by life energy blockage which could be cured using careful hand movements, eye gaze, and even the mental processes of the one carrying out the treatments.
Within months of his first announcing his great discovery, Mesmer had become famous across Europe with news of his various spectacular cures. Not only did the flamboyant Mesmer insist on seeing patients dressed in gold slippers and a silk robe, but his treatment sessions involved him sitting across from his patient, holding the patient's knees between his own, touching and massaging the patient on various parts of the body, and gazing carefully into the patient's face. His magnetic manipulations usually involved passing his hands over the patient's body or using a magnetized wand. During his dramatic treatent sessions, patients often fel Mesmer's cures were often fell into a state of agitation with involuntary arm and leg movements, chattering teeth, grimacing, groaning, and fainting spells. Any patient who became too agitated was whisked off to a "crisis room" lined with mattresses to muffle the sounds of screaming. Since the patients were almost always women (often wealthy, high society women), the controversy surrounding exactly what the handsome and charismatic Mesmer was doing with his patients seemed natural enough. Although many critics acknowledged that Mesmer had succeeded in curing some of his patients, they argued that these cures were purely psychosomatic. Despite the misgivings, Mesmer's medical practice took him across Germany and Austria and healers across Europe came to study his methods.
While Mesmer's successes earned him numerous awards (including being nominated to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences), his failures were the stuff of scandal. A case in 1777 where he tried using animal magnetism to cure a blind woman forced him to leave Vienna for Paris.
Which was where he became King Louis XVI's problem...
Not satisfied with having a busy practice with more patients than he could possibly treat, Franz Mesmer also demanded that his animal magnetism be formally approved by France's Royal Academy of Sciences and Royal Society of Medicine. He even offered to hold public demonstrations to convince the eminent scientists of the Royal Academy that he had made a radical new discovery. He gained one powerful supporter in Charles Nicholas d'Eslon, a private physican to the King's brother as well as a member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris. In defending Mesmer, d'Eslon described several impressive cures that he had witnessed himself, including a young boy that Mesmer had apparently saved from dying. The members of the Royal Academy were harder to convince though. For many of the scientists, including eminent chemist Antoine Lavoisier, Mesmer's "explanations" about animal magnetism seemed like nonsense.
Despite the resistance, Mesmer's medical practice brought him so many patients that he gave up on individual treatments and developed a new group treatment that he called the "baquet". Essentially a large, tublike object made of oak, the baquet had numerous iron rods sprouting up from the lid. The rods were bent at right angles and at different heights for the magnetic treatments to be applied to different parts of the body. During the groups sessions, as many as twenty patients would stand or sit around the baquet with a rod touching the body part affected by disease. Tied to the baquet by ropes, the patients would link fingers together to complete the "electric circuit". To improve the mood of the healing session, Mesmer also burned incense and had music from a glass harmonica played. Since the treatments took place in Mesmer's specially prepared salon, with elaborate drapes, mirrors, and astrological symbols on the walls, the ambiance said as much about Mesmer's skill as a showman than as a healer. He even reserved one of the four baquets that were in constant use for charity patients who could not afford his fees. Considering Mesmer's popularity, even his wealthy patients had to reserve places months in advance.
Not that Mesmer was the only one offering animal magnetism treatments. As soon as he arrived in Paris, Mesmer began training students through his "Society of Universal Harmony". After paying a hefty fee, the students received a full initiation into Mesmer's treatment practices as well as his theories about electricity, magnetism, and how they affected the body. One of the first graduates of Mesmer's program, Nicolas Bergasse, wrote a popular training manual titled Considérations sur le magnetisme animal (despite the fact that he was a lawyer and not a medical doctor). Within a few years, Mesmer's Society had hundreds of graduates who began offering treatments across France.
Ironically, the baquet was actually more humane than the electric shock treatments that were all the rage at the time. Both electricity and magnetism were still poorly understood although scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin did their best to explain these experiments carefully. Benjamin Franklin, who was the American ambassador to France between 1776 and 1785, was at the forefront with public demonstrations of the electric power stored in Leyden jars. In one experiment, he had people join hands to complete an electric circuit to show how electricity traveled when one of them touched the Leyden jar. With this public awareness came attempts to harness electricity as a way of curing disease and various healers (including apothecaries and medical doctors) used electric shocks to treat everything from depression to paralysis. Considering the risk of electrocution associated with this type of treatment, it's probably not surprising that patients preferred Mesmer's baquet instead.
But did it really work? In spite of testimonials from grateful patients and the enormous enthusiasm over Mesmer and his treatments (later dubbed "Mesmeromania" by novelist Stefan Zweig), scientists such as Lavoisier and Franklin remained skeptical. The controversy dragged on until 1784 when the King decided to settle the matter once and for all by calling for two formal commissions, one from the Royal Society of Medicine and the other from the Academy of Sciences to test Mesmer's claims. Although France had more pressing problems by that time, the King had a personal reason for insisting on Mesmer being investigated since Queen Marie Antoinette was a frequent patient and he likely wanted to avoid any possible scandal. The fact that the Queen had personally offered Mesmer a hefty pension to stay in Paris and train more students (which Mesmer arrogantly rejected demanding more money) may have motivated the King's decision as well.
Whatever the King's reasons, the Royal Commission went to work and Mesmer saw it as an excellent opportunity to gain the official recognition that he had craved for so long.
And so, the battle was on.
To be continued.
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