John Elliotson (1791-1868) was a physician and a leading late proponent of Mesmerism and phrenology in the British Isles who edited The Zoist: 'A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare

Medical Career and Mesmerist Controversy

Elliotson's early career was dazzling. By 1832, he was professor of the principles and practice of medicine at University College London, and by 1834 he was senior physician to University College Hospital.

Elliotson saw himself as on the vanguard of medical innovation, such as the use of the stethoscope, and he saw his interest in Mesmerism and phrenology in the same light, likening the resistance of his colleagues to the sixteenth-century contemporaries of William Harvey who refused to accept systemic circulation (the idea that the heart pumps blood through the whole human body).

Elliotson had a fairly dramatic fall from grace in 1838. Following his unorthodox experiments with the O'Key sisters at the University College Hospital, the hospital passed a resolution against the use of mesmerism. Elliotson resigned soon afterwards, but his colleague Thomas Wakley continued to challenge his ideas, both in The Lancet and (most probably) in anonymous publications that mocked Elliotson's practices, such as A Full Discovery of the Strange Practices of Dr. Elliotson on the Bodies of His Female Patients (1842).

Mesmerist Theories

The consistency of Elliotson's mesmerist and phrenological theories is questionable, although his writings seem to have in common a stubborn determination to provide materialist explanations for the phenomena of 'sleep-wakefulness', telepathy , and mesmeric healing. In this sense, Elliotson is a clear example of the divide between materialist explanations and spiritualist or supernatural explanations of mesmerism. 

Professional Life:

Elliotson began his career as a professor of medical practice and theory at University College London in 1832, while also acting as a senior physician to University College Hospital in 1834. He was a highly respected professor due to the simplicity of his lectures, and the energy he produced, leading to reports of his lectures in medical press and journals such as The Lancet.

Elliotson was an innovative physician, credited with being the first to use a stethoscope, one of the first to practice acupuncture in Britain, the first to use iodine to treat goitre, and the first to associate hay fever and allergic conditions to the environment. Infamous for his originality in medicine in particular, Elliotson explored the association between prussic acid and stomach and chest conditions, the procedure of using opium for the treatment of diabetes in 1820, and the was influential in the diagnosis of heart disease in 1829. Elliotson was in opposition with Robert Liston (surgeon) however, who criticised Elliotson’s ‘contamination’ of the hospital space with his mesmerist techniques, rather than solely ‘proper’ medicine.

Elliotson became the first President of the Royal Medical and Chirugical Society in 1833 and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society. Elliotson’s private practice was one of the largest in London, and at the ultimate point of his career he was perceived as one of the paramount physicians of the British Empire. Also a medical author, Elliotson published his notable, Human Physiology in 1840. He was famous for his treatments and ‘striking phenomena’ on patients, most notable, the Okey sisters for their epileptic conditions. Elliotson was higly interested in phrenology, and founded and became the first President of the London Phrenological Society in 1823. He was exceedingly influenced French mesmerists, after witnessing demonstrations by Richard Chenevix in 1829 and Dupotet de Sennevoy in 1837.

However, in 1838, critic of Elliotson, Thomas Wakely accused him of performing ‘deliberate trickery’ on the Okey sisters, further attacking Elliotson’s methods in The Lancet, of which he was the founding editor. Following this, Elliotson resigned from University College Hospital, he began the London Mesmeric Infirmary in 1849, which then lasted until 1866.

The Zoist:

After Elliotson’s career at the University College Hospital, he did not cease his practising of mesmerism, despite his conflicts with the medical professionals like Wakely. In 1844, he began, edited, and wrote for the journal, The Zoist. The quarterly journal aimed to encourage the theories and practices of mesmerism and phrenology, with the added objective of “connecting and harmonising practical science with little understood laws governing the mental structure of man.” The journal further expanded to also include similar aspects of the field, such as double consciousness, hemicerebral mesmerism, the ‘Reichenback’ phenomena, phrenomesmerism, the phrenological characteristics of murderers, and notoriously, the use of mesmerism as an anaesthetic method in surgery. The Zoist ended in 1856, but Elliotson continued to involve himself in mesmerism articles in the Medical Times and Gazette.

Personal life:

Elliotson was born on 29th October 1791 in Southwark, London, to the son of an apothecary.  Perceived as a self-absorbed physician, Elliotson was narrow-minded and frequently disregarded opposition to his methods. However, some saw these as positive attributes as he was very forceful in arguing that injustice and unnecessary pain and suffering should be avoided at all costs, which is evident in his perplexity in why mesmeric methods for anaesthetic purposes were objected to by many medical professionals. His strive for justice is also clear in his sympathetic outlook towards his patients and explains the amicable relationships that he developed with them. After The Zoist was ended, Elliotson visited Dieppe in northern France, where he encountered spiritualist phenomena and became a devout religious man. He faced financial trouble towards the end of his life, thus having to close his house and move to a retirement home in London. Elliotson died the on 29th July 1868 of ‘natural decay’ aged 76.