A Night of Mesmerism and Psychology at Barts Museum

Last Thursday I had the privilege of giving a talk in the excellent Damaging the Body lecture series, ably organised at Barts Museum of Pathology, London, by Jo Parsons and Sarah Chaney. Surrounded by hundreds of jars filled with various organs and body parts of dead people (no nibbles were served in case you’re wondering), I performed a post-mortem examination of mesmerism as a historiographical casualty during the birth of German professionalised psychology. (A comprehensive analysis is presented in my Wellcome Trust-funded study of the entanglement of psychical research and early professionalised psychology in Europe and North America, which I’m currently revising into a book manuscript).

Franz Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer

Starting with a brief sketch of changing scientific attitudes to ‘fascination’ (mental influence at a distance) and miraculous healing from the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment, I noted that in popular standard accounts of mesmerism it is often ignored that Franz Anton Mesmer’s notion of animal magnetism (a fluidum with similarities to the ‘ether’ in western physics, and ‘chi’ and ‘prana’ in Eastern medicine) adopted scientific ideas that were hardly controversial at the time, and that he viewed himself very much as a child of the Enlightenment. A case in point is Mesmer’s strict opposition to the school of animal magnetism inaugurated by the Marquis de Puységur, who reported the occurrence of clairvoyance and the transference of thoughts and sensory impressions between his patients and himself. In 1775 the Bavarian Academy of the Sciences even appointed Mesmer to investigate the miracle cures of the exorcist Joseph Gaßner and found Mesmer’s explanation – that Gaßner’s spectacular therapeutic successes were due to the exorcist’s animal magnetism rather than the expulsion of evil spirits – good enough to declare Gaßner debunked.

Friedrich W. J. Schelling

Friedrich W. J. Schelling

Yet it was de Puységur’s rather than Mesmer’s brand of animal magnetism that was imported to enlightened Germany in the late eighteenth century. Many respected physicians found mesmerism to be a highly effective medical treatment, and by the early nineteenth century there existed university chairs for animal magnetism at Berlin, Bonn, Halle, Gießen and Jena. The Romantic offshoots of German Idealism were pervaded by references to magnetic clairvoyance and thought-transference as the philosophical works of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel testify. Particularly through Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, transcendental aspects of animal magnetism almost became part of German mainstream intellectual culture, and as late as 1851 Arthur Schopenhauer maintained: “He who nowadays doubts the facts of animal magnetism and its clairvoyance is not to be called incredulous but ignorant”.

Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck

Mid-nineteenth century Germany saw political developments with significant repercussions for the professionalisation of fledgling scientific disciplines. Themes around dangers of superstition and ‘enthusiasm’ were rehearsed in a slightly less bloody version of the French Revolution in the German Märzrevolution in 1848 (the year when spiritualism began to spread in America). Shortly after the pronunciation of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (‘Struggle for culture’) exploited for political ends the perceived socially disruptive nature of ‘superstition’, for which Catholicism served as a shorthand. About 1,800 priests had been imprisoned or exiled and 16 million marks of church property confiscated throughout the 1870s, and as historical studies of prosecuted child visionaries, somnambulists, poltergeist victims, spiritualist mediums, lay healers and other outlaws of nineteenth- to early twentieth century German enlightened culture have shown, the law came down rather harshly especially on the less privileged.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt

To say that the birth of modern professionalised psychology at the end of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf occurred in a climate not exactly supportive of unrestrictedly empirical approaches to certain reported phenomena traditionally associated with ‘superstition’ would therefore be an understatement. In fact, Wilhelm Wundt’s foundation of the first German laboratory of physiological psychology in 1879 was in the same year as his public attack on the Leipzig astrophysicist Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who (supported by Wundt’s revered mentor, Gustav Theodor Fechner) had just published results of experiments in the interpenetration of matter allegedly achieved by a spiritualist medium (Zöllner viewed this as a confirmation of his famous theory of a fourth dimension of space). Employing the standard enlightened rhetoric of the time, in his pamphlet Der Spiritismus Wundt insisted that scientists ought to steer clear from investigating phenomena whose confirmation he feared could only result in the downfall of modern civilisation and enlightened Christianity.

W. T. Preyer's article 'Animal magnetism and mediumism once and today' (in 'Deutsche Rundschau', 1878).

W. T. Preyer’s article ‘Animal magnetism and mediumism once and today’ (in ‘Deutsche Rundschau’, 1878).

Representatives of early professional psychology other than Wundt joined his war against Zöllner and his supporters. Wilhelm Preyer at Jena sought to integrate a strictly physiological approach to the problems of hypnotism into psychology by introducing the work of James Braid to Germany, and he took no prisoners when it came to defending the public image of psychology from associations with mesmerism and spiritualism. Supplying leading popular reviews and magazines with polemical remonstrations of Zöllner and his supporters, Preyer became one of the most vocal and active ‘Enlightenment crusaders’ among late-nineteenth century German psychologists.

Rudolf Heidenhain

Rudolf Heidenhain

Another standard reference in the history of German hypnotism, Der sogenannte thierische Magnetismus (1880 and multiple German and English editions) by the Breslau physiologist Rudolf Heidenhain, was written with similar intents. The text was the published version of a lecture delivered before the Silesian Society for Home Culture at Breslau just weeks after the public demonstrations by the Danish hypnotist Carl Hansen, whose performances catalysed German medical interest in hypnotism. Heidenhain acknowledged that his talk had been invited by the Silesian Society’s president with the purpose of counterbalancing the influence of naughty Zöllner’s spiritistic science on enlightened German culture. Referring to Zöllner’s experiments and their support by leading intellectuals (such as Fechner and the physicist Wilhelm Weber), Heidenhain explained: “In an age in which this is possible, there is an imminent danger that phenomena such as Mr. Hansen displays may lead to a new form of superstition,” and he identified beliefs in animal magnetism and related phenomena as “mental diseases.”

Charles Richet

Charles Richet

At the Salpêtrière in Paris, the reduction of demonic possession, trance states and mystical ecstasy to mental disease (hysteria) through Jean-Martin Charcot became a powerful tool in the establishment of medical hypnotism in an academic climate that was again thoroughly anti-clerical. By 1885, for Henri Beaunis (director of the first psychological laboratory at the Sorbonne and co-founder of the first French psychology journal), hypnotism had become “a veritable method of experimental psychology”, which “will be for the philosopher what vivisection is to the physiologist”. The man who appeared to have inspired French medical and psychological interest in hypnotism in the first place was the dye-in-the-wool materialist and future Nobel Laureate Charles Richet. Initially dismissive of reports of telepathy and clairvoyance in animal magnetism, by the early 1880s Richet had become convinced that some of the controversial phenomena were genuine and began to challenge traditional notions of naturalism by approaching them as natural rather than supernatural phenomena.

Edmund Gurney

Edmund Gurney

Beaunis and other early representatives of French psychology also reported telepathy and clairvoyance in the hypnotic context, and one of the earliest experimental studies by Pierre Janet were systematic tests of ‘mental suggestion’ (ostensible telepathically induced hypnotic suggestions) in his famous patient, Leonie B. In England, Frederic W. H. Myers and Edmund Gurney and other members of the Society for Psychical Research also studied telepathy and allied phenomena in hypnotism, which they approached in an integrative theoretical framework that sought to make sense of normal, abnormal, pathological and parapsychological mental phenomena alike. From 1889 to 1900 the psychical researchers represented Britain at the International Congresses of Experimental Psychology, and William James in America and Théodore Flournoy in Switzerland embraced and adopted their psychological methods.


Experiments in telepathic hypnotism at the Munich Psychological Society (Carl du Prel in the background)

In Germany, the philosopher Carl du Prel devised a very similar integrative research programme. In 1886, together with other scholars and artists dissatisfied with the methodological monism of Wundt’s experimental psychology, du Prel inaugurated the Munich Psychological Society, whose research programme followed that of the Society for Psychical Research in England. Another co-founder of the Munich society was the young student of medicine, the future sexologist and medical hypnotist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing. Two years later, the 22-years old student of philosophy and medicine Max Dessoir, who coined the term ‘Parapsychologie’ and wrote a classical early bibliography of hypnotism, established a similar society in Berlin, the Society for Experimental Psychology. In 1890 the Munich and Berlin societies merged into the more conservative Society for Psychological Research (I investigated the history of these societies and the coinage of the term ‘Parapsychologie’ in this article).


Unsurprisingly, pioneers of German professionalised psychology like Wundt, Preyer and Hugo Münsterberg were deeply worried that the unorthodox experiments in telepathic hypnotism in du Prel’s and Dessoir’s psychological societies damaged the public image of enlightened physiological psychology, which they still struggled to install at German universities (Münsterberg still had to accommodate his Freiburg lab in his home). It was also feared that questions of telepathy and mediumship as discussed at the first five International Congresses of Experimental Psychology, and not least the active interest of men like Richet, Janet and William James in these areas, threatened the public image of the new profession.

Wundt's 'Hypnotism and Suggestion'

Wundt’s ‘Hypnotism and Suggestion’ (1892)

It is in this wider context that fundamental changes in Wundt’s research programme need to be appreciated. After all, up to the late 1860s Wundt had insisted that the prime object of scientific psychology was the unconscious soul rather than the waking self. It was only with the enormous popularity of theorists of the unconscious who accepted the ‘mystical’ phenomena of animal magnetism such as the philosophers Eduard von Hartmann and Lazar von Hellenbach in the 1870s, and later Carl du Prel and Frederic Myers, that Wundt began to drop his insistence on unconscious cognition as the basic principle of scientific psychology. By the time of his essay on hypnotism in 1892, Wundt had completely reversed his earlier viewpoint and now maintained that concepts of unconscious cognition were in fact intrinsically unscientific.

London_CongressWundt’s essay opened with an attack on the psychological societies in Munich and Berlin, admitting that to him du Prel’s insistence on the scientific necessity to reconsider transcendental explanations for certain hypnotic phenomena sufficed to categorically reject hypnotism as a method of psychological experimentation. Wundt also targeted the English psychical researchers by expressing worries that their organisation of the imminent International Congress of Experimental Psychology at University College London would further encourage psychological experiments and observations whose nature Wundt insisted was “pathological through and through”. Conceding there may be some utility of a ‘disenchanted’ hypnotism for medicine, Wundt argued that its study should be left to physicians such as the sexologist Albert Moll, who was just starting his own ‘Enlightenment crusade’ on the field of medical hypnotism.

Albert Moll's popular 'Prophecy and Clairvoyance' (1922)

Albert Moll’s ‘Prophecy and Clairvoyance’ (1922)

Psychologists like G. Stanley Hall, Joseph Jastrow and James McKeen Cattell had similar concerns when they went on the warpath against the ‘father’ of the profession in America, William James, whom they accused of damaging the public image of fledgling psychology through his investigations of mediumship and telepathy. A recurring theme in these polemical attacks was the portrayal of beliefs in telepathy and related phenomena as forces that were not very different from good old evil spirits. Like a succubus, belief in the ‘occult’ was feared to seize, pervert and ultimately destroy the hapless victim, and the only cure was blind reliance on the authority of self-styled guardians of science and reason, whose rhetoric was often reminiscent of the Great Inquisitor rather than the man or woman of dispassionate science. Public discourse was dominated by authors like Jastrow in America and Moll in Germany, who chose popular rather than formally academic channels of information to demarcate psychical research from psychology and medical hypnotism respectively.

In conclusion, I argued that these debates during the professionalisation of psychology continue to have a considerable impact on the discipline’s self-image. Not least, there is much to suggest that modern standard notions of the intrinsic pathology of magical thinking and so-called ‘paranormal belief’ are routed in an unreflected reliance on polemics of pioneers of the profession like Wundt and Preyer, rather than on impartial empirical research. By demarcating professionalised psychology from psychical research, these early representatives of the deeply divided science constructed the public image of a united psychology, at the same time suggesting its utility in the battle against the new ‘enthusiast’ movements of animal magnetism and spiritualism. After all, together with popular materialism, ‘magical thinking’ was the complementary bogey of late-nineteenth century enlightened cultures.

But that is a topic for another presentation.

© Andreas Sommer

About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

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