02/12/2021

Meet The Man Behind The Word ‘Mesmerize’

5:51 minutes

a colored oil painting of many people in 18th-century attire sitting in a room. they are all holding magnetized rods to parts of their bodies.
A French oil painting from the late-1700s of “Mesmeric therapy.” Credit: Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0

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In the 18th century, a man named Franz Anton Mesmer came to Paris with a plan: to practice a controversial form of medicine involving magnets and gravity. Mesmer claimed his treatments cured everything from toothaches to deafness. His critics, however, weren’t so sure about that. Mesmer made enemies in high places, labeling him a con, and calling his type of practice “mesmerism.” 

The story behind the word “mesmerize,” and other words about mind control are the focus of season three of Science Diction, a podcast about words and the science behind them from Science Friday. 

Joining Ira to talk about the story behind “mesmerize,” and what else is coming this season is Science Diction host, Johanna Mayer.


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Segment Guests

Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts 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.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: I want to do a little exercise here. Close your eyes for a moment. But hey, not if you’re driving or walking, OK?

What do you think of when you hear the word “mesmerize?” Hypnosis, perhaps? Or maybe something so beautiful you can’t take your eyes off it?

Well, the origin of this word is the subject of the first episode of the new season of Science Diction, our podcast about words and the science stories behind them. And joining us to tell us more is Johanna Mayer, producer and host of Science Diction, right here in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome back, Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: OK. So where does the word “mesmerize” come from?

JOHANNA MAYER: Well, it actually comes from a person, namely a Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer. And so Mesmer was a doctor in the 1700s. And he practiced this very strange form of medicine called animal magnetism. Have you ever heard of that?

IRA FLATOW: In a bar maybe, but not in terms of practicing it.

JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. It’s because it’s not really a real thing. But the idea behind it, Mesmer believed, was that there was this invisible fluid that flowed in all people.

And at the time, Newton’s law of gravitation was actually a relatively recent thing. And Mesmer believed that gravity affected this supposed fluid in us, also. So he thought that it would ebb and flow just like the tides and you ran into trouble when this fluid would get blocked inside a person. So the cure for that would be to figure out some way to unblock it, just like a plumbing issue, kind of.

But the term “mesmerize” actually came from this doctor’s critics. They refused to validate animal magnetism. They were like, that’s not a real thing. We’re not going to call it that. And so they called what he was doing “mesmerism.” So this doctor was said to have mesmerized his patients.

IRA FLATOW: Mesmerized his patients?

JOHANNA MAYER: Mm-hmm.

IRA FLATOW: What did he do to his patients?

JOHANNA MAYER: Well, Ira he did all sorts of really weird stuff. So his first breakout treatment was with this woman named Franzl Osterlin. And poor Franzl had a whole host of afflictions that were plaguing her, everything from a toothache to convulsions to occasional bouts of paralysis. And just nothing that they were trying was working to cure her.

So Franzl walks into Mesmer’s office one day. And he’s like, great. Perfect opportunity to test out this animal magnetism theory, see if there’s anything to it. So first, he asked Franzl to drink this iron-rich concoction. And then he took magnets and he ran them all up and down her stomach and legs trying to unblock this fluid.

And to be clear, this should not have caused any sort of sensation. But according to Franzl she said that she first felt pain and then that changed to burning heat and then suddenly, her afflictions just went away. So that was Mesmer’s first breakout treatment.

And from there, things really escalated. He would bring groups of patients into these dimly lit, eerily decorated rooms. He would pace around wearing this purple silk robe. He would wave his arms over their bodies. And he even had this magnetic iron wand that he would use to supposedly move around this fluid.

And these treatments could be really disturbing to witness. Patients would go into fits. There would be convulsions. They would yell. But the thing was a ton of them claimed to emerge from these sessions healed.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So did it actually work, then?

JOHANNA MAYER: I mean, probably not, although it depends– it depends on what you mean by work, though, right? Because to be clear, Franz Anton Mesmer was a crank. But something was working. Many patients claimed that they were cured and felt better. And the thing is these early practices from Mesmer are widely cited as one of the first demonstrations of the placebo effect.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. Really?

JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. And Mesmer’s legacy is still present in a lot of modern medical treatments. Some say that he even laid the foundation for modern hypnosis treatments.

A little-known psychoanalyst named Sigmund Freud was a big fan of Mesmer. And some even go so far to credit him for very early iterations of talk therapy treatments. But on the other side of the coin, some say that Mesmer’s associations with these practices have kept them from being fully accepted by mainstream medicine. But one thing that you definitely can say that Mesmer gave us is a demonstration of the power of suggestion on our minds.

IRA FLATOW: Cool. That’s a great story. So what else can we expect from Science Diction’s new season?

JOHANNA MAYER: Well, our theme this time around is mind control, so we’ve got lots of stories about that. Next week, you can expect an episode on the word “lunacy,” which comes from the Latin for “moon.” And it’s really a story of why we thought the moon controlled both our moods and our minds for a long time.

And even further down the pike, we have the word “robot,” which is the word that has surprising literary origins. And it’s really about what happens when you create a mind that can’t be controlled. So all sorts of fun stuff coming down the pike

IRA FLATOW: And fun stuff is what we like here on Science Friday. Thank you. We’ll be looking forward to that, Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Johanna Mayer, host of Science Diction, of course, living in Brooklyn.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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