Don`t get `Mesmerized`

Have you ever been mesmerized? The term, meaning to entrance, enthrall or hypnotize, has medical roots from the 1700’s and can still teach us a lesson today.

Mesmerism as a verb came into use as a result of the work of Viennese physician Franz Mesmer, a doctor who came up with some strange and influential medical theories and became notorious as a result.

Mesmer was an opportunist. It is believed today that he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and then married a rich widow for the advantages of her money. From this point on, he became a patron of the arts and a wealthy practitioner of treatments with dramatic flair, but no scientific merit.

After watching a Catholic faith healer, Mesmer developed his theory of animal magnetism. He claimed that illnesses occurred as a result of disturbances in a person’s ‘psychic ether’ and that he himself had a powerful effect on the bodies of patients – which he called animal magnetism.

Indeed, Mesmer’s treatment methods are an excellent early example of the power of suggestion – or placebo effect.

Treatment with animal magnetism involved using magnets to create what he called ‘artificial tides’ in patients’ bodies, which would supposedly fix the disruptions in an individual’s ether and cure a variety of ailments.

Sometimes the treatment involved placing magnets on the patient’s body and moving them around or placing patients in tubs of milk or water filled with metal filings.

Other times he simply used his own hands – which he claimed were powerful conduits of animal magnetism.

Surprising to us modern day skeptics, Mesmer’s treatment became very popular and he had many followers who proclaimed its success.

Eventually, Mesmer developed his treatment into an entertaining and dramatic show and he became so popular that he would have large groups of people hold hands in his garden as he hosed them with magnetized water.

As his fame and popularity grew, so did Mesmer’s boldness. He began to develop a reputation for groping his female patients – whose psychic disturbances often required him to spend hours with his hands on their thighs, breasts and buttocks.

Finally he was deemed a fraud and a pervert by the medical and moral authorities and he fled Vienna in shame. However, Mesmer continued to practice his animal magnetism in Paris and eventually Switzerland.

Although the follies of early medicine and quacks like Franz Mesmer seem far behind us today, there still exist modern day examples of treatments with more flare than substance.

Beware of so-called miracle cures with glowing testimonials, but no hard data to back them up. As I have mentioned in previous columns discussing the placebo effect, even completely useless treatments will likely help some people who get moderately or temporarily better from them.

Clinical trials are a critical part of developing truly effective treatments. Using scientific methods and controlled tests is the only way to objectively learn if a treatment truly works better than suggestion and also to find out about its adverse effects.

 

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