Hypnosis in the 19th Century

Hypnosis entered the 19th century as a fringe activity associated with quacks, and left it as a mainstream medical technique practised in respected hospitals and universities. This remarkable transformation was due to the persistence of individual physicians and researchers, who risked professional ostracism and ridicule to explore the techniques discovered by Mesmer. The reason they did so is because, despite all the mystical magnetic mumbo-jumbo, an inconvenient fact remained – mesmerism worked.

Mesmer’s ideas didn’t disappear after his death, but spread out amongst a growing band of devotees to develop in ways he could never have imagined. In the early decades of the century, mesmerists fell into two camps; “fluidists”, who clung to the belief in animal magnetism being transmitted across the ether, and “animists”, who looked for a more psychological explanation. At first, the debate between these two camps took place outside of medical circles, with men such as Jose-Custodio de Faria (1756-1819), a Catholic priest from Goa, championing the “animist” view.

Little by little, the belief in an ethereal magnetic fluid faded away, and the idea of suggestion and belief began to gain ground. At the same time, the medical establishment began to take notice. Alexandre Bertrand (1795-1831), a physician from Nantes, began to lecture on the subject and conduct experiments after witnessing a public display of mesmerism in 1819. In 1826, experiments conducted by Hénin de Cuvillers (1755-1841) and Joseph Philippe Francois Deleuze (1753-1835) convinced the Académie de Médecine to investigate the possibilities of mesmerism once again. A report was published in 1831, acknowledging the very real results that mesmerism was able to produce, and raising the tantalising prospect of its use in surgery.

This idea was championed in Britain by John Elliotson (1791-1868), a University College Hospital physician who’d become interested in mesmerism after seeing a demonstration in 1829 by the French chemist Richard Chevenix. At first, Elliotson’s main interest was in the use of mesmerism as a treatment for nervous disorders. He became involved with Jane and Elizabeth O’Key, a pair of Irish sisters admitted for “hysterical convulsions”, who proved to be very obliging mesmeric subjects. Elliotson began to use them in public displays, where they became a star turn, changing personality at his command to sing, dance and deliver witty repartee.

To 21st century eyes, this seems more like a stage hypnosis show than a scientific demonstration, and it was controversial even at the time. The O’Keys seemed to enjoy their mesmeric showbiz career a little too much, and they were consistently accused of faking. Elliotson ability to defend them was undermined by the fact that he was a staunch “fluidist”, a position that was becoming increasingly untenable. He was forced to resign from the Hospital, but went on to claim a prominent place in the history of hypnosis when he opened the London Mesmeric Infirmary in 1849. Here he pioneered the use of hypnosis for anaesthesia and pain control in surgery, keeping meticulous records of many successful operations, including amputations.

Elliotson had a profound influence on James Esdaile (1808-1859), a Scottish surgeon who worked in India between 1845 and 1851. Here he performed over 300 major and 1000 minor operations using only hypnotic anaesthesia. In his book Mesmerism In India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine, Esdaile gives a summary of the 73 painless surgical operations he performed in the last eight months of his stay in India. These include arm, breast and, alarmingly, penis amputations, dental surgery and the removal of tumours. In addition, he used hypnosis to cure 18 nervous and medical complaints, including headaches, tics and convulsions, sciatica, inflammation of various body parts and a “feeling of insects crawling over the body.” (1)

Despite the success of hypnotic anaesthesia, by 1846 mainstream medicine had come to favour the use of nitrous oxide in surgical operations. A promising line of inquiry was thus shut down, except for sporadic efforts by individual researchers. Mesmerism continued on its wayward course, often as a form of parlour entertainment, or in conjunction with spiritualist seances.

Further significant developments occurred towards the end of the 19th century, when a debate emerged in France between the Saltpêtrière and Nancy “schools” of hypnosis. Both were inspired by the work of Charles Richet (1850-1935), a professor of physiology at the University of Paris, who conducted many experiments in medical or clinical hypnosis in the 1870s.

The Saltpêtrière school grew up around Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), Director of Medicine at the famous/infamous Saltpêtrière Women’s Asylum. Charcot’s main interest was in female “hysteria”. He was a flamboyant figure, given to theatrical presentations and demonstrations, illustrated with the very latest photographic technology (indeed, he published a regular photographic journal, illustrated with portraits of his patients in various stages of hysteria). He also acquired the rather unflattering nickname of the “Napoleon of Neurosis”.

Charcot explicitly related hypnosis to hysteria, since the symptoms of hysteria, as he saw it, exactly matched the three “stages” of hypnosis that he’d been able to identify, following on from Richet’s work. These were “catalepsy”, where the subject would respond to physical suggestions given by the hypnotist; “lethargy”, where they wouldn’t respond to any suggestions at all; and “somnambulism”, where the subject was able to converse and respond to any suggestion given to them. Charcot was fascinated by the ready susceptibility that hysterics displayed towards hypnosis, and formed the conclusion that hypnosis was another form of hysteria – in short, an abnormality.

In opposition to this, a school of thought grew up around the writings of Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919), a professor of medicine at the University of Nancy. Bernheim attacked Charcot’s findings, disputing the “three stage” model of hypnosis and successfully arguing that suggestibility was a normal human trait. He proved this by using men in his experiments, since it was widely accepted that men were less susceptible to suggestion than women!

The dispute between the two schools grew quite bitter. Like Mesmer before him, Charcot was partially undone by his own personality, but more significantly by the fact that hypnosis was demonstrably a universal human experience. The Saltpêtrière view had a lingering influence, in that Sigmund Freud picked up on a number of Charcot’s theories. Indeed, Freud was an early devotee of hypnosis, before abandoning it in favour of free association techniques.

The details of the dispute obscure the fact that both parties accepted the existence of hypnosis as a valid phenomenon, and only disagreed over the interpretation. That this could be the case in two eminently respectable and mainstream universities is remarkable, and proves how far hypnosis had travelled since the days of Mesmer. Somewhere along the way, of course, it became “hypnosis” rather than “mesmerism”. The missing link is the work of James Braid (1795-1860).

(1) Esdaile, J. Mesmerism In India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine, 1846

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