The following passage is excerpted from “The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine” by Anne Harrington—a recent addition to my recommended reading list.
The End of Medical Exorcism in Europe
Appreciating the interweaving religious, philosophical and political stakes [in 18th century medicine] is important, because it can help us make sense of an episode whose significance we might otherwise misinterpret: the showdown between the German exorcist Father Johann Joseph Gassner and the Viennese physician Anton Mesmer.
Gassner was an exorcist whose ability to cast out devils was legendary. People came from all over to be healed, and in dramatic public performances—witnessed by crowds from all sectors of society—Gassner would oblige. Official records were made; competent witnesses testified to the extraordinary happenings. All agreed on the basic facts. On being presented with a supplicant, Gassner would typically wave a crucifix over his or her body and demand in Latin that, if the disease he was seeing had a “preternatural” source, this fact must be made manifest. The patient would then typically collapse into convulsions, and Gassner would proceed to exorcise the offending spirit.
Sometimes he added flourishes to this basic routine: in one dramatic instance, for example, he ordered the demon inside a woman to increase the poor woman’s heartbeat and then to slow it down. Following the second command, a witnessing physician was invested to examine the patient and declared her dead—he could find no pulse, he exclaimed; her heart had stopped! But Gassner remained calm and demanded that the demon responsible for these acts depart from the body of this woman at once. The command given, the woman stirred and rose to her feet before the crowd, alive and well. No one could exorcise like Gassner.
But the increasingly secular sensibilities of the time combined with the growing hostility of the civic authorities toward the Church to make Gassner’s very successes the cause of his undoing. The medical profession complained; the local authorities complained; and in 1774, by order of Prince Max Joseph of Bavaria, a commission was set up to investigate all these goings-on. One of the experts invited to assist in the investigation was a young physician named Franz Anton Mesmer.
Mesmer was asked to assist because he seemed to have a perspective on Gassner’s performance that would be very useful for the skeptics and others who wanted to rein in Gassner. Today, Mesmer is remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a charlatan, or a showman, or maybe as someone who discovered the existence of psychological processes that he did not himself properly understand. He considered himself, however, to be a child of the dawning enlightened, scientific age. He was interested in the larger implications of Newton’s ideas about physical forces and gravitation; and he was skeptical, both of the old supernatural ideas about the world, and of the old authority structures of the Church.
Mesmer’s Theory of Animal Magnetism
Mesmer was particularly interested in the medical implications of Newton’s theory of gravitation. Newton had suggested that the human body might contain an invisible fluid that responds to planetary gravitation, like the tides of the ocean. Taking up this idea, Mesmer performed an initial series of experiments in which he moved mineral magnets around the bodies of his patients. In response to such treatments, Mesmer’s patients reported experiencing strong sensations of energy moving through their bodies. They also experienced all sorts of involuntary movements, including often violent convulsions. These convulsions left many patients feeling much improved, or even cured of their ailments. Apparently, mineral magnets could have great therapeutic value through their ability to influence human magnetic fields in this fashion.
“It is not enough to cure the sick; you have to cure them with methods accepted by the community.”
But then Mesmer made a further discovery: the mineral magnets were not actually necessary to the effects he could produce! By simply waving his hands over a patient’s body, Mesmer was able to produce precisely the same results as he had before using mineral magnets. From this startling observation, Mesmer concluded that he himself had actually been the source of the invisible magnetic energy or force that had been benefiting his patients all along. He called this force “animal magnetism,” and suggested that it had worked its therapeutic effects by rechanneling or refortifying the weakened animal magnetism in his patients.
More than anything else, it was Mesmer’s new theory of animal magnetism that interested the Commission investigating Gassner’s work, for they could see that it gave Mesmer a new way in which to think about the Christian drama of demonic possession and exorcism.
“Not spirits, but an invisible magnetic force.” It was a conclusion that helped give the authorities the rationale they needed to put a stop to Gassner’s public career. From then on, the priest was forbidden to engage in public exorcisms. He was confined to a small parish and only allowed to perform private exorcisms under supervision.
Gassner’s problem was not that he had failed to help people, but rather that the narrative of exorcism he used to frame his therapeutic work was no longer suited to an increasingly secular, civic-minded age. As historian Henri Ellenberger wryly observed, “it is not enough to cure the sick; you have to cure them with methods accepted by the community.”
Mesmerism Falls Out of Fashion
Franz Anton Mesmer
In the spring of 1784, King Louis XVI authorized two royal commissions made up respectively of members of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Academy of Sciences to carry out the job [of investigating and discrediting Mesmerism]. The work of the first, strictly medical commission was largely forgotten soon after its report. However, the work of the second commission was to prove much more influential. The membership of this Commission reads like a Who’s Who of natural philosophy at the time, including Benjamin Franklin, astronomer Jean Bailly (who had computed the orbit of Haley’s Comet), chemist Antione Lavoisier (who discovered oxygen), and the physician Joesph-Ignace Guillotin (whose main claim to fame, being embodied in his name, hardly requires further mention).
These men oversaw a series of rather clever trials that together served to demonstrate, to their complete satisfaction, that there was no evidence that an animal magnetic fluid was responsible either for the convulsive crises, or the resulting cures of Mesmer’s patients.
For the commissioners, the mere fact that a treatment worked…was not sufficient grounds to take it seriously.
Their conclusions are often taken to represent an early triumph of the scientific method over gullibility, but this fails to do justice to the situation. We are not dealing here simply with a desire to expose fraud, nor we are dealing with skepticism toward a particular explanatory framework that could be replaced by another, better one, as in the case of Gassner.
The commissioners freely conceded that the treatments they had observed had the capacity to produce powerful bodily effects in some people—convulsions, tremors, and more; that they were even open to the possibility that some of these effects might be of a therapeutic nature. But they found that the cause of these effects lay not in the physical but in the mental realm; not in Mesmer’s supposed magnetic “fluids” but rather in the faculty of mind they called the “imagination”. What they were doing was dismissing these effects as unworthy of explanation altogether.
The mesmerist who was the target of the investigation complained that the commissioners made no effort to define the “imagination” to which they attributed the magnetic effects. He had missed the point. For the commissioners, the mere fact that a treatment worked—at least on some level, and some of the time—was not sufficient grounds to take it seriously. In the words of French philosopher Isabelle Stengers, “the suffering body is not a reliable witness” to the validity of a treatment. “It can happen that it will be cured for the ‘wrong reasons’”.
What do you think is the moral of this story?