The dissemination of mesmerism in Germany (1784–1815): Some patterns of the circulation of knowledge

An open-access article in the most recent issue of Centaurus will interest AHP readers: “The dissemination of mesmerism in Germany (1784–1815): Some patterns of the circulation of knowledge,” by Claire Gantet. Abstract:

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a physician who graduated from the University of Vienna, invented a therapy based on the concept of a universal fluid, similar to electricity, that flowed through all living things. By restoring the circulation of this fluid in the nerves of human bodies, he believed he could cure illness without resorting to medication. Few medical theories have enjoyed as great success as Mesmer’s, first among French high society and then in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Russia, Britain, and the US. Mesmerism was the circulatory phenomenon par excellence. Its success was founded not only on the hypothesis of the circulation of a fluid common to human physiology and the entire universe, but also on the scientific practices of the time—correspondence, translations, and periodicals—and some ardent and highly active supporters who ensured its spread. However, far from functioning along the lines of direct exportation–importation from one country to another, or a centre to the periphery, mesmerism’s dissemination was the work of diffuse institutions and individual mobilities influenced by the modalities of communication. In seeking to reconstitute the wellsprings of these circulations, the first sources that come to mind are printed matter: the many pamphlets and especially the articles and reviews that appeared in periodicals, as well as the Romantic literature that flourished after 1810. Such documents are foundational for authoritative studies of mesmerism in Germany, which proceed from the thesis of successive “waves” of reception. Such sources, however, are somewhat misleading. Rather than taking them as our starting point, it would be better to reconstitute the channels of information by using many sources, both printed and handwritten. The complexity of the circulation of knowledge generated by mesmerism is implicitly testament to the difficulties arising from the institutionalization of this current.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.