The doctrine of animal magnetism developed by Franz Anton Mesmer and published in "Sur la découverture du magnétisme animal" in Paris in 1779. The doctrine suggested new ways of treating disease based on the idea of an 'external invisible fluid or pervasive magnetic force suffusing the universe'[1]that could be manipulated to produce healing effects. Mesmerism caused controversy in Victorian society, broadly dividing people into three groups: those that justified it on spiritual grounds, those that saw it as scientific and one who challenged its validity completely.

Mesmerism and the Body

Mesmer's theory came with its own very particular conception of the human body, with energy flowing from the stars into the human head and from the earth into the feet. The region on either side of the upper abdomen was known as the 'hypochondria'. (See Darnton Mesmerism and the End of Enlightenment in France, 4)

Mesmerism and Gender

Women played an interesting role in the theory of animal magnetism and mesmerism. The works of John Elliotson in The Zoist more often than not narrate the healing of female patients through the practice of mesmerism.[2]

Bertucci argues that women were important protagonists when electrical shows were performed on stage. Their magnetism was distinctly 'feminine', associated with bright colours and light sparks (such as the Northern Lights). Meanwhile, masculine magnetism was strong and fast. Men would try and kiss women who had been 'electrified' only to be denied by sparks from their lips. In other shows, Men would hold electrified swords to produce bright displays of power and strength in front of women.[3]

In the practice of mesmerism, there came a belief that women were conduits to supernatural forces, whilst men were capable of harnessing these powers. Doctors of mesmerism tended to be male, and the most famous cases of mesmeric treatment tended to be on the healing of a woman, possesed by a physical or spiritual disease.

Examples of Mesmerists


Kaplan, Fred. "The Mesmeric Mania": The Early Victorians and Animal Magnetism. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1974), pp. 691-702.

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