The 18th Century Health Craze Behind The Word “Mesmerize”

It all started when a doctor with some peculiar methods showed up in Paris.

cartoonish yellow watch fading across the frame to indicate swinging back and forth, against wine-colored, papery textured background
Credit: Kay Wasil

design of typewriter with text 'science diction'Science Diction is a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

logo that says listen on apple podcastsbadge that says 'listen on stitcher'

In the late 18th century, a doctor showed up in Paris practicing some very peculiar medicine. He would escort patients into dimly lit rooms, wave his arms over their bodies, and touch them with a magnetic wand. Patients would react to these treatments violently: crying, sweating, convulsing or shrieking. But then they would emerge healed. According to the doctor anyway.

Many believed he was a fraud, but despite his dubious methods, this doctor inadvertently gave us a new approach to healing—and a new word: mesmerize. Because the doctor’s name was Franz Anton Mesmer. 

Read a transcript of this episode. 

Watch a short piece of the story—animated!

an etching with several well-to-do people in a room, wearing red, engaging in some strange behavior like hypnotism. they are all gathered around a central table and text at the bottom of the image says "le magnetisme animal"
A depiction of Mesmer’s “treatment” baquets. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Emily Ogden is an associate English professor at the University of Virginia.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For a deep dive on mesmerism, check out Emily Ogden’s book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism.


Science Diction is hosted by Johanna Mayer. This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Katie Thornton. Elah Feder is our editor and senior producer. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and we had sound design from Chris Wood, who also mixed and mastered the episode. Fact checking by Michelle Harris and Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is the former senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

About Katie Thornton

Katie Thornton is an award-winning multimedia journalist, Fulbright Fellow, and National Geographic Explorer. Her writing, audio, and photos have been published by National Geographic, the BBC, National Public Radio, 99% Invisible, Atlas Obscura, and others.

Explore More

When Restaurants Were Chic Soup Spas

The first restaurants were for fancy French people trying not to eat.

Read More

How ‘Umami’ Redeemed MSG

It all started with MSG in a bottle.

Read More