Magazine article The Spectator

'The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound', by Wendy Moore - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound', by Wendy Moore - Review

Article excerpt

The history of modern medicine is a roll call of brilliant minds making breakthrough discoveries. We rarely hear about the losers, but Wendy Moore has chosen to write the extraordinary story of a massive medical fiasco: the craze for mesmerism which gripped Victorian London in 1838.

The practice of using the ancient technique of hypnosis for medical purposes takes its name from the 18th-century German physician Franz Mesmer. The mesmerist of Moore's story was a society doctor called John Elliotson, a man who has been almost forgotten today.

Elliotson was a self-made physician who rose quickly to the top of his profession. Clever, tough and ambitious, by the age of 40 he was professor of medicine at London University. He was instrumental in founding the North London Hospital (later UCH) for the London poor. A brilliant lecturer, he campaigned to break the hold of the self-selected oligarchy which ruled the medical establishment. He championed new discoveries, such as quinine and the stethoscope, and the understanding of allergies, such as hay fever; and he introduced real improvements in hospital practice. He was drawn to mesmerism as a cure for epilepsy but, as Moore clearly shows, he soon became fanatical about it.

Elliotson's subject was a 17-year-old working-class London girl named Elizabeth Okey, who supposedly suffered from epilepsy. When he hypnotised her, she fell into a trance and then began to perform strange antics. She talked, opened her eyes and behaved in a uninhibited way. Her personality completely changed. Normally shy and demure, Elizabeth flirted and joked and appeared not to feel electric shocks.

Elliotson's séances at UCH were public performances, and people flocked to watch Elizabeth. Dickens was entranced by her. Elliotson was a man obsessed. He mesmerised Elizabeth several times a day for many months. As her behaviour became ever more barmy and outlandish, the doctor-patient dynamic shifted. Increasingly, it was Elizabeth who called the tune, telling Elliotson to leave her alone and predicting what she would do next. 'I never saw such a d--d fool in all my life,' she declared. She advised Elliotson how to treat her and went on ward rounds diagnosing the other patients. Stranger still, her younger sister Jane, also an epileptic, was mesmerised and replicated Elizabeth's behaviour even when apart from her.

To the Victorian medical establishment Elliotson's relationship with the Okey sisters was deeply unsettling. …

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