Lecture Notes: Dr. Mesmer's cure for pain | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: Dr. Mesmer's cure for pain 

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It was common knowledge in early Victorian England that ether vapors and nitrous oxide dulled pain--for decades both chemicals figured in comical stage acts in which people under their influence suffered abuses with giddy oblivion. So why did it take nearly half a century for doctors to adopt these anesthetics in the operating theater? Alison Winter, a historian of science at the University of Chicago, traces this mystery to the concurrent popularity of mesmerism, a practice of inducing trance by supposedly manipulating invisible magnetic fluids in a person's body. From the late 1830s through the 1860s, wandering lecturers staged demonstrations that drew thousands, who came to watch their entranced peers get twisted into unnatural positions, speak in tongues, and have strange torments--electric shocks, deafening noises--inflicted upon them by skeptics with no apparent ill effects.

Mesmerism is named after Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese doctor who first came to prominence in 1775 after debunking the technique of an exorcist. He claimed he could perform superior ministrations by "tuning" a patient's magnetic harmony, which involved moving his hands around the body. After quitting Austria for France, he became such a celebrity in prerevolutionary Paris that in 1784 he and his clinics drew the scrutiny of a royal commission, which ultimately concluded that "this fluid without existence is consequently without utility."

The practice fell from favor on the continent, but when mesmerism jumped the channel in the late 1830s it seized the popular imagination, and Winter believes the craze has much to teach us about the notoriously straitlaced Victorian way of life. "We are powerfully drawn to deciphering these people," she writes in her 1998 book, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. "Instead of diagnosing mesmerism, we can use it as a diagnostic tool to study Victorian culture." She ran into ideas about pain quite alien to our indulgently medicated ways. "You don't think pain has a history," she says, but anesthesia by mesmerists inspired moral outrage. "Many doctors were appalled by the idea that you could suspend pain and consciousness," Winter says. "They were horrified by the very possibility"--most upsetting was the prospect of losing control over will and body. In addition, established physicians, apothecaries, and surgeons feared that mesmerists might trespass on their client base. Winter argues that English doctors overcame their reservations when ether and nitrous oxide proved their efficacy; doctors belatedly embraced chemical anesthesia because it allowed them to best the mesmerists.

Mesmerists, however, scored some celebrated successes. Winter cites many cases in India in which massive scrotal tumors were excised while the patient was in a mesmeric trance. Past patients, not mesmerized, had died of shock from such surgery. While researching her book Winter also unexpectedly encountered mesmerist tendencies in today's culture, as in the techniques practiced by energy-manipulating healers in southern California. "I was giving a big public lecture at Caltech," she says, "and some 20 people from the audience came up afterward and said 'we're mesmerists,' though they had never used that term."

Winter got interested in mesmerism after she came across a mesmeric journal in the dead periodicals stacks at Cambridge, where she earned her PhD. In the journal, mesmerists complained bitterly that doctors had taken all the credit for inventing anesthesiology. That mesmerism had a medical application, she says, made her take it seriously as an area of study.

The daughter of University of Michigan academics, Winter grew up in Ann Arbor with heady mentors: "My mother, if you can believe this, has two PhDs--one in the philosophy of mind and one in clinical psychology--and she is obsessed with questions of scientific evidence. And my father is an abstract algebraist and is very sort of whimsical, and my ex-stepfather, who I lived with when I was growing up, is a biochemist. I remember when I was seven or eight out on a walk at a botanic garden and asking my mother what a fact is and getting a half-hour reply."

"Writ large," says Winter, "Victorians...were carrying out experiments on their own society." She notes that there's a "dizzyingly large vocabulary" used by Victorians to label the mesmerist trance: insensibility, transient death, sleep, coma, catalepsy, suspended animation, and human hibernation. Though she's been tempted, she's never been mesmerized herself. But having recently discovered cases in which Victorian mesmerists eased childbirth, she may soon take the plunge. "I'm seven and a half months pregnant," she says, "and I'm thinking about using hypnotism because I don't want to use drugs."

At 6:30 PM on Wednesday, May 8, Winter will give a talk titled "Mesmerism and the Invention of Surgical Anesthesia in Victorian Britain" at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr., where 19th-century ether masks and chloroform inhalers are on permanent display. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. For reservations and further information call 312-642-6502, ext. 3130.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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