Franz Anton Mesmer, the Man Who Invented Hypnotism

A tall, striking doctor with an unusually piercing gaze sits opposite his patient, firmly pressing her knees between his own. He stares fixedly into the patient’s eyes, stroking her limbs, and then passing his hands in front of her body in a series of cryptic motions. Is this man a hypnotist or a movie villain? A healer or a charlatan? In the case of Franz Anton Mesmer, the answer to all of the above could be yes.

Mesmer was an 18th century doctor who developed the theory of animal magnetism (more about that later), as well as a related style of treatment that came to be known as mesmerism. His theories were debunked in his time and sound bizarre today, but some credit him with laying the foundation for the practice of modern hypnotism. He is also part of the select group of people in history to have an entire verb—mesmerize—named for him.

Mesmer was born in 1734 in Iznang, Germany to a forest warden and a locksmith’s daughter. After a childhood studying in a monastery and Jesuit schools, he enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied law and then medicine, graduating with honors. Influenced by Isaac Newton’s ideas about the role of heavenly bodies on ocean tides, in 1766 he published a doctoral thesis titled De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum (On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body). But it was not until several years later, when he encountered Jesuit astronomer Maximilian Hell (yes, his real name) and his treatment of patients using magnets to produce artificial “tides” in the body that Mesmer began referring to animal magnetism. While that may sound like some sort of sexy super power, Mesmer’s meaning was a bit more literal.

His theory held that all living beings have a magnetic fluid (akin to electricity—it was not unusual to speak of energy as “fluid” in Mesmer’s time) running through their bodies, and that this fluid could be transferred between bodies and even to inanimate objects. Health was a result of the magnetic fluid being in balance, while illness was the result of blockages. Taking a page from Hell, Mesmer began working with patients by using magnets to move their fluid around and restore their health. But he eventually abandoned the magnets after deciding that an individual with particularly strong magnetism (such as himself, of course) could achieve the same effect by laying hands on or passing his hands over a patient’s body.

Mesmer married wealthy widow Maria Anna von Posch in 1768, cementing his place in elite society and entering a period of high times in Vienna. He entertained socialites—Mozart and Joseph Haydn among them—at his manse, where he also set up a medical practice. His treatment of patients using mesmeric techniques brought great success for a time, but his failed attempt to cure famous blind piano prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis around 1777 eventually brought trouble. According to some accounts, Paradis was able to see when Mesmer was in the room, but went blind again when he left. When word got out that Mesmer had not cured her as he had claimed (there were also some reports of inappropriate touching), a scandal erupted, and Mesmer fled to Paris in 1778.

Franz Anton Mesmer mesmerizing a patient.
Wellcome Library London // CC BY 4.0

Paris initially proved fertile ground for him. The Vienna scandal didn’t seem to damage his credibility much, and there were plenty of rich, ailing, bored aristocrats in need of his services. Before long, Mesmer was inundated with as many as 200 clients a day, making it difficult to treat them individually. Fortunately, the resourceful doctor harnessed his supposed ability to transfer animal magnetism to inanimate objects and built a helpful contraption, which he called the baquet. The apparatus consisted of a large wooden tub filled with iron filings, glass bottles, and water, magnetized by Mesmer himself. Iron rods protruded from the top, which patients would press to the ailing parts of their bodies.

Descriptions of the scene in the baquet salon are pretty strange. The room was richly appointed and dimly lit, the air filled with incense and weird melodies from an instrument called a glass harmonica. The afflicted sat in a circle around the baquet, hands linked, receiving a healing dose of Mesmer vibes. Mesmer, meanwhile, prowled the room outfitted in an aristocratic wizard getup, complete with a lavender robe and a magnetized metal wand. Patients (most often women) were frequently seized by violent convulsions and fits of weeping or laughter, necessitating their removal to a separate crisis room. Mesmer disappeared for long periods of time to attend the women, which led to some raised eyebrows.

Franz Anton Mesmer and patients using a baquet.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France // Public Domain

Eventually rumors and doubts began circulating about Mesmer’s Paris operation as well. In 1784, King Louis XVI—worried because his wife, Marie Antoinette, was among Mesmer’s clientele—ordered a commission to examine his methods. The group (which included chemist Antoine Lavoisier and visiting American diplomat Benjamin Franklin) was actually less concerned with whether Mesmer’s methods worked than with whether he had discovered a new type of physical fluid. After an inquiry into the practices of Mesmer protégé Charles d’Eslon, it was determined that no such fluid existed. Soon afterward, Mesmer left the city. He wandered around Europe, then lived for years as a relative exile in Switzerland before dying in Austria in 1815.

While Mesmer was disparaged in his day, some of his patients did claim to have been cured by him. Moreover, he stumbled on something still relevant in modern psychological practice. For it wasn’t the righting of a fluid imbalance or Mesmer’s superior magnetism that relieved people of their suffering; it was his ability to induce a suggestive mental state through which ailments, often of a psychological nature, could be alleviated. This technique—stripped of the mysticism and pageantry—remains the basis of hypnosis, which, while still controversial, has become recognized as a valid therapeutic technique—no baquets necessary.

Primary image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
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Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
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Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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