Mesmer’s Secret: The Scientific Rhetoric of Mesmerism in the Enlightenment
When Fraulein Oesterlin made her first visit to a medical clinic in 1773, she was in poor health, burdened with several severe ailments at once. A well-born Viennese woman with adelicate constitution, she suffered from fevers, constant vomiting, bowel inflammation,unbearable toothaches and earaches, depression, delirium, occasional blindness, and even boutsof paralysis. Her doctor, Franz Mesmer, listened to her incredible list of symptoms, butremained unfazed. In fact, he welcomed her with enthusiasm, for she was his ideal patient.Mesmer was determined to discover a new form of medical treatment – a universal panacea, acure for all diseases – and if he could relieve the poor Fraulein of all her various complaints, hissuccess would be known to the world. Fueled with these ambitions, Mesmer embarked on anunusual treatment method for Oesterlin. He attached two horseshoe magnets to her feet, andanother heart-shaped one to her breast. Her reaction was immediate. Excruciating painemanated from the magnets, tearing through her legs and chest. Mesmer, deaf to her protests,fastened even more magnets to her limbs, and monitored her with close attention as sheexperienced painful, sweat-drenched convulsions. After three weeks of this intensive treatment,Oesterlin checked out of the clinic. She was cured, she claimed, and in perfect health. Mesmer had performed a medical miracle.
In the wake of this remarkable success, Mesmer continued to treat the afflicted of Vienna,and was able to perfect his methods on patients with various conditions. News of his work
Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal
(Geneva: P. F. Didot, 1781), 18-33. Mesmer’sfirst success with Fraulein Oesterlin is also recounted in Derek Forrest, “Mesmer,”
International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis
50 (2005), 298-300 and in Jean Vinchon,
Mesmer et son secret
(Paris: A. LeGrand,1936), 15-19.