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Evaluating Mesmerism, Paris, 1784: the controversy over the blinded placebo controlled trials has not stopped
  1. M Best,
  2. D Neuhauser,
  3. L Slavin
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Medical School, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio 44106-4945, USA; dvn@po.cwru.edu

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    In 1778 Dr Anton Mesmer arrived in Paris from Austria with his new theory of illness and the treatment he had created. He believed in the power of “animal magnetism”, a universal fluid to cure illness. Groups of his patients gathered in a room surrounding a large enclosed wooden tub with iron wands protruding out of it. The patients would hold the wands and touch them to their afflicted parts. The animal magnetism would flow from the tub through the wands to the patient. Patients were convinced they were cured and sometimes went into hysterics or passed out. Mesmer's therapeutic salon became the fashion and the aristocracy and wealthy crowded in, making Mesmer's practice a very profitable one. For the large fee of 100 gold louis, people could join the Society he founded, learn of his methods, and hope to prosper as well. Mesmer's new treatment and ideas were discussed at the highest level at court. The wife of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), was originally from Austria. She helped Mesmer with her patronage and referred Austrian nobility to him for treatment. She wanted to offer him a government pension to teach his theories of animal magnetism. The Parisian medical establishment was not pleased to see many of their highest paying patients leaving them to seek the excitement of Mesmer's salon. Between the enthusiasm of his wife and the anger of the medical establishment, what could a King do other than appoint a study Commission?

    The first report in 1784 by the Royal Academy of Medicine of France simply said that Mesmer's theory was not consistent with the accepted medical dogma of the day. Since the accepted medical theories of that time are nearly as foolish as Mesmer's, and there was no discussion of outcomes, this report is unconvincing. …

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