Wendy Moore, The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound (London: Orion Publishing 2017) 320 pp. £18.99 Hb ISBN:9781474602297
Prior to 1780 Europeans largely believed that what we now call mental illness was a result of demonic possession, with a demon inhabiting the body of the afflicted and mechanically operating them like a puppet. Just over a hundred years later Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious from which modern psycho-dynamic theory is derived. Mesmerism was the first step of this fascinatingly condensed period that later embraced spiritualism and hypnotism. Mesmerism held that certain movements, gestures and gazes could induce a reduced state of consciousness that made subjects insensitive to pain, susceptible to suggestion and (fantastically) able to predict the future, or sense through impenetrable barriers. The Mesmerist usefully examines a crucial moment in its development, depicting in detail how mesmerism arrived in England via one brilliant Victorian surgeon, how he devoted his life to this phenomenon, and its rocky relationship with the medical establishment and wider society. The text tells the story of bitter rivalry developing from a close friendship, and how two young female patients were able to fool and manipulate not just this surgeon, but the bulk of the medical profession, and high society patrons such as Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. It will be useful to the general reader interested in medical history of this era and understandings of the unconscious, and is written with a light touch and clear style with minimal medical jargon. This is primarily a history, not an investigation into the phenomenon of mesmerism, recreating from letters and other primary sources the daily interactions of the principal figures.
The first few chapters sets the context for the book with Chapter One depicting the regular ‘demonstrations’ of the power of mesmerism. It jumps into the heyday of mesmerism where a stifling lecture theatre is packed with reporters, vice-admirals and the world's medical authorities. The primary characters are introduced: the relentless medical reformer Wakely; his friend the equally stubborn reformer Elliotson, and the epileptic Okey sisters that were the focus for the ‘treatment’ of mesmerism. Chapter Two explains the medical context; the theory of the four humours with ‘purging’ via emetics, leeches, and cupping universally prescribed. Elliotson's biography is thoroughly contextualized, with his early history and long struggle against the nepotism of the medical establishment well portrayed. His valuable contributions to medicine are established, and he is shown to be no naïve dupe, passionate about the scientific method and sensible medical reform. Chapter Three tells a similar story of the other great medical reformer Wakely, founder of the medical journal The Lancet. The two came to be great friends and united in a campaign for medical reform.
The middle chapters use this context to explore the impact of mesmerism. Chapter Four explains how mesmerism, already a success on the continent, arrived in the UK after the Napoleonic wars. Chapter Five tells of the initial resistance that Elliotson experienced from his colleagues and the resulting personality clashes. Chapter Six shows how interest in mesmerism spread to wider society, partly through the seemingly miraculous cure that it provided for what we might now recognise as psychosomatic illnesses, physical illness with a psychological component. It describes how the Okey twins came under Elliotson’s care, how they responded to mesmerism more than any other patients, and how Elliotson and others investigated mesmerism with a battery of wild experiments; mesmerising various animals, and even using animals to mesmerise humans!
The next cluster of chapters explore how mesmerism waned in popularity with the medical profession. Chapter Seven tells of how Elliotson’s colleagues attempted to prove that mesmerism was not real through a variety of tests; the experiments, however, were poorly designed and Elliotson adapted his theories to address each. As he departed from conventional scientific rationality Elliotson become more and more devoted to the Okey twins. In his still popular demonstrations he deferred to the suggestions of the twins more than they to him, and they announced ‘new powers’ that they would receive via mesmerism. Chapter Eight depicts the consequences, with one of the twins instigating a witch-hunt amongst the patients to identify a patient that was faking. This confirmed her as a ‘true’ recipient of the treatment, and emboldened by this authority she developed a new power: to prescribe to patients, and predict which would die soon. This development met with much resistance. Wakely, the great medical reformer broke his neutrality on the subject and a great rift grew with his friend. In Chapter Nine Wakely is shown to orchestrate a final trial of mesmerism that was to be strictly and scientifically controlled. This convinced Wakely that all mesmerism was mere sham and quackery and he published attack after attack on mesmerism and Elliotson.
The last few chapters provide a counter-argument to the effect that Wakely was overly dismissive, arguing for the potential usefulness of mesmerism as a phenomenon. Chapter Ten shows how Elliotson began his ascent back towards the top of the medical profession with a humble hiccuping cure via mesmerism. Even without the guiding hand of Elliotson, literary patronage of mesmerism brought it back into a favourable light. Eventually, its pain-relieving qualities were successfully applied to the operating theatre and serious surgery was successfully completed under its influence. Chapter Eleven shows how chemical pain relief, (ether and later chloroform) turned out not to be the magic bullets they were thought to be. The deaths caused by them, their side-effects and unpredictability left mesmerism as a far safer alternative. The final chapter provides some suggestions as to how mesmerism came to be so effective, establishing a continuum between mesmerism, via the spiritualist movement which developed out of it, with the continued therapeutic hypnotism of today.
Overall the book narrates this story well, exploring how mesmerism created, destroyed, and then resurrected the career of the brilliant Doctor Elliotson, created a rift between the two greatest Victorian medical reformers, came to be regarded as a sham, and metamorphosed into a therapeutic device that brought unrivaled levels of relief to a variety of symptoms, and continues in use by the NHS today. Mesmerism has a fascinating backstory, and Wendy Moore delivers an intriguing chapter in this medical history.
Joe Holloway, University of Exeter