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Hypnotism: Its History, Practice and Theory


I.—Pioneers of Hypnotism

Just as chemistry arose from alchemy, astronomy from astrology, so hypnotism had its origin in mesmerism. Phenomena such as Mesmer described had undoubtedly been observed from early times, but to his work, which extended from 1756 to his death, in 1815, we owe the scientific interest which, after much error and self-deception, finally led to what we now term hypnotism.

John Elliotson (1791–1868), the foremost physician of his day, was the leader of the mesmeric movement in England. In 1837, after seeing Dupotet's work, he commenced to experiment at University College Hospital, and continued, with remarkable success, until ordered to desist by the council of the college. Elliotson felt the insult keenly, indignantly resigned his appointments, and never afterwards entered the hospital he had done so much to establish. Despite the persistent and virulent attacks of the medical press, he continued his mesmeric researches up to the time of his death, sacrificing friends, income and reputation to his beliefs.

The fame of mesmerism spread to India, where, in 1845, James Esdaile (1808–1859), a surgeon in the East India Company, determined to investigate the subject. He was in charge of the Native Hospital at Hooghly, and successfully mesmerised a convict before a painful operation. Encouraged by this, he persevered, and, at the end of a year, reported 120 painless operations to the government. Investigations were instituted, and Esdaile was placed in charge of a hospital at Calcutta, for the express purpose of mesmeric practice; he continued to occupy similar posts until he left India in 1851. He recorded 261 painless capital operations and many thousand minor ones, and reduced the mortality for the removal of the enormous tumours of elephantiasis from 50 to 5 per cent.

According to Elliotson and Esdaile, the phenomena of mesmerism were entirely physical in origin. They were supposed to be due to the action of a vital curative fluid, or peculiar physical force, which, under certain circumstances, could be transmitted from one human being to another. This was usually termed the "od," or "odylic," force; various inanimate objects, such as metals, crystals and magnets, were supposed to possess it, and to be capable of inducing and terminating the mesmeric state, or of exciting or arresting its phenomena.

The name of James Braid (1795–1860) is familiar to all students of hypnotism. Braid was a Scottish surgeon, practising in Manchester, where he had already gained a high reputation as a skilful surgeon, when, in 1841, he first began to investigate mesmerism. He successfully demonstrated that the phenomena were entirely subjective. He published "Neurypnology, or the Rationale of Nervous Sleep," in 1843, and invented the terminology we now use. This was followed by other more or less important works, of which I have been able to trace forty-one, but all have been long out of print.

During the eighteen years Braid devoted to the study of hypnotism, his views underwent many changes and modifications. In his first theory, he explained hypnosis from a physical standpoint; in the second, he considered it to be a condition of involuntary monoideism and concentration, while his third theory differed from both. He recognised that reason and volition were unimpaired, and that the attention could be simultaneously directed to more points than one. The condition, therefore, was not one of monoideism. He realised more and more that the state was a conscious one, and that the losses of memory which followed on waking could always be restored in subsequent hypnoses. Finally, he described as "double consciousness" the condition he had first termed "hypnotic," then "monoideistic."

Braid maintained an active interest in hypnotism up to his death, and, indeed, three days before it, sent his last MS. to Dr. Azam, of Bordeaux, "as a mark of esteem and regard." Sympathetic notices appeared in the press after his death, all of which bore warm testimony to his professional character. Although hypnotic work practically ceased in England at Braid's death, the torch he had lighted passed into France.

In 1860, Dr. A.A. Liébeault (1823–1900) began to study hypnotism seriously, and four years later gave up general practice, settled in Nancy, and practised hypnotism gratuitously among the poor. For twenty years his labours were unrecognised, then Bernheim (one of whose patients Liébeault had cured) came to see him, and soon became a zealous pupil. The fame of the Nancy school spread, Liébeault's name became known throughout the world, and doctors flocked to study the new therapeutic method.

While Liébeault's work may justly be regarded as a continuation of Braid's, there exists little difference between the theories of Charcot and the Salpêtrière school and those of the later mesmerists.