The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound by Wendy Moore - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Look into My Eyes

The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 308pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The central action of Wendy Moore’s startlingly curious book takes place over a single year at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. As a contemporary journalist put it, ‘There is no chapter in the history of Medicine more astounding and bewildering than the episode of 1837–38, when for a time animal magnetism or mesmerism engrossed the attention of the Profession and the public.’ The twelve months began with the arrival in London of a French performer of acts of ‘animal magnetism’ and ended with the dramatic resignation from his post at University College Hospital of John Elliotson, the celebrated physician who made that institution a theatre for spectacular displays of human hypnotism. Along the way, Moore explores the interconnected themes of medical innovation, radical scientific journalism and the contemporary crazes for phrenology, galvanism and clairvoyance. 

Dr Elliotson, The Mesmerist’s protagonist, was a charismatic, ambitious figure. The handsome and precocious son of a prosperous Southwark pharmacist, he saw first-hand in his father’s dispensary the physical effects of illness and poverty. His ascent was swift: after completing his studies in Edinburgh and Cambridge, he made a fortune through his private practice. In 1831, he was appointed professor of the theory and practice of medicine at University College Hospital, part of the newly established University of London. Elliotson was bold and iconoclastic, a member of the inner sanctum of a medical establishment he despised. Like George Eliot’s Dr Lydgate, he was also a controversial enthusiast for new technologies, such as the stethoscope – ‘symbolic of a new era in medicine, a new kind of doctor’ – and an early advocate of acupuncture.

Elliotson’s championing of a new and controversial publication called The Lancet was a characteristically shrewd move. Thomas Wakley, the surgeon who started The Lancet, was a radical demagogue determined to open the closed-shop world of the medical profession to public scrutiny. Nepotism, quackery and corruption were rife and access to expertise was expensive for students. Surgeons such as the celebrated Astley Cooper charged £5 a term to attend his lectures; The Lancet printed them in a magazine that cost 6d. The medical establishment, furious at this assault on their privileges, debarred Wakley from operating theatres, but he continued to haunt the hospitals, exposing scandals and charlatanism. It was soon an advantage to have The Lancet on your side, and Elliotson used the paper to communicate to the world his own considerable achievements, including his investigations into the possibility of using quinine to cure malaria and iodine to cure goitre. He was also the first to argue that hay fever was caused not by hay but by the pollen in flowering grass.

His enthusiasm for phrenology, the practice of determining character through the lumps and bumps of the skull, was matched by his near-obsession with mesmerism, the practice of inducing trance-like states as a cure for neurological disorders. Franz Anton Mesmer, the 18th-century German who gave his name to the process, had played to packed houses on a stage complete with bowls of iron filings to concentrate ‘magnetic force’ and handsome assistants who stroked women’s breasts until they had ‘convulsive fits’. The French homeopathist Baron du Potet’s claims that mesmerism could cure epilepsy sparked Elliotson’s interest and by early 1837 he was putting on ‘displays’ of his own.

Elliotson’s most famous patient was a ‘beguilingly pretty’ teenage housemaid called Elizabeth Okey, who suffered from mysterious seizures. Demure and shy in normal life, when mesmerised Okey would become amorous, ribald and wild. She whistled, muttered incoherently and provoked the more eminent members of the audience. Genuine scientific curiosity with a light dusting of titillation – it was a winning formula.

As the popularity of these displays grew, Elliotson introduced even more radical ways to demonstrate how hypnosis made his subjects impervious to pain: he drove a needle into Okey’s neck and subjected her to electric shocks; she lifted eighty-pound weights that should have been impossible for her to pick up. The crowds flocked in, and were invited to pinch and prod Okey for themselves. Elliotson upped the experimentation, convinced, for example, that mesmerism could be transmitted by metals or magnetised water. Okey, under hypnosis, began to take over the show and offer predictions of the future: the press waggishly nicknamed her ‘the prophetess of St Pancras’. Was the doctor in control or the patient? No one seemed quite sure.

To Elliotson’s many critics, these were sadistic freak shows and he was the ringmaster, but public opinion on the efficacy, even authenticity, of mesmerism remained divided. Elliotson’s close friend Charles Dickens was entirely convinced: ‘I am a believer, and … I became so against all my preconceived opinions,’ he wrote. Wakley, however, was sceptical and it was The Lancet’s denunciation of mesmerism that forced Elliotson to resign from University College Hospital.

Nonetheless, in the outside world, the mania for mesmerism had taken root. It made such a good spectacle. ‘Travelling practitioners’, writes Moore, ‘sprouted like mushrooms’, offering demonstrations that often involved attractive women behaving indecorously after being stroked into a trance. One doctor’s act involved animals – he hypnotised not only cats and dogs, but also two elephants and even a tub of fish. Elliotson continued his shows at home to huge audiences. To prove his pet cockatoo could transmit mesmeric rays, he would rub it until it fell fast asleep. He established the London Mesmeric Infirmary, where he claimed success in curing seizures and similar ailments among the poor and performed a mastectomy on a woman under hypnosis. In 1842, a former colleague of Elliotson amputated the leg of a farm labourer who had been hypnotised, apparently painlessly. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the introduction of anaesthetic in the form of ether to Britain in 1846, the possibilities of using hypnosis in surgery might have been subject to more thorough investigation.

Wendy Moore has written a thrilling account of this odd byway of medical history. She has also managed to navigate the many internecine rows of the Victorian medical establishment. Her style is sometimes a bit breathless and her cliffhangers don’t always turn out to have much of a drop, but she has successfully taken a historical episode and used it to colour in the world of 19th-century scientific endeavour and its attempts to uncover the still-unexplained mysteries of the human unconscious.

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