The 18th Century Scientific Dream Team

Medical quackery has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, going back to ancient times and still being practiced today. In the 18th century, the most popular medical fraud was a German physician and theologian named Dr. Franz Mesmer.  Mesmer believed that there was a natural energetic transference between inanimate and animate objects, a universal force he called “animal magnetism”. Mesmer claimed that he could control this energy, using it to heal people.  For decades he traveled around Europe “curing” people of various maladies, providing services to all people, from the poor lower classes to kings and emperors. Even Mozart was a follower of Mesmer, who composed a musical play in his honor. He often used techniques which would best be described today as hypnotism, thus his name forms the root of the word “mesmerize”.

 When French Queen Marie Antoinette became one of Mesmer’s clients in 1781, King Louis XVI immediately became suspicious.  Thus, he brought together some of the most brilliant thinkers of the age, a veritable Dream Team of 18th century scientists. First there was Antionne Lavoisier. A French scientist now known as the “Father of Modern Chemistry”, Lavoisier’s studies are detailed in the first dozen or so chapters of any high school or college chemistry book.  He is best known for discovering the Law of Conservation of Mass, the combustibility of oxygen, that diamonds are made of carbon, establishing that sulfur is an element not a compound,and credited with the naming of oxygen and hydrogen.  Second was Dr. Joseph Guillotin, an expert in human anatomy who helped pioneer early vaccination techniques.  He is often credited with inventing the guillotine, but in fact he didn’t, only suggesting it as a more humane alternative to execution techniques of the time. The third was an astronomer and mathematician named Jean Sylvain Bailly, who is known for discovering several of Jupiter’s moons. The fourth was Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, a botanist with a photographic memory whose work formed the foundation of modern taxonomic classification. The fifth was Jean Darcet, professor of chemistry at the College de France and the first person to manufacture porcelen in France. Finally, to round off the scientific dream team was the Great Sage and American inventor, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, then serving as US Ambassador to France as part of the American Revolution.  While today Franklin is best known for his studies in electricity, Franklin was an 18th century Renaissance man whose diverse fields of study included oceanography, meteorology, theoretical physics, fluid dynamics, medicine, anatomy and physiology, thermodynamics, demographics, political theory, civic activism, diplomacy, language, theology, music, economics, finance, optometry, sexuality, and human flatulance. King Louis XVI’s Commission on Animal Magnetism was “The Avengers” of late 18th century science.  Ben Franklin was the 18th century version of Tony Stark.     

In order to test Mesmer’s Theory of Animal Magnetism, the Dream Team proposed Mesmer take part in some simple tests, which were to be conducted  at Franklin’s residence in Passy. Instead of showing up personally, Mesmer sent one of his associates, a man named Dr.Charles Deslon, to take part in the experiment. Deslon explained to the scientists how animal magnetism worked.  As part of a demonstration, Deslon would “magnetize” one of the trees in Franklin’s collection of potted plants.  Deslon’s assistant, a boy wearing a blindfold, would then hug each tree, correctly declaring which tree was the one Deslon had magnetized. It was then that the Dream Team proposed that Deslon repeat his demonstration, except before the blindfolded boy tried to identify the “magnetized” tree, the trees were to be randomly moved and shuffled in order. In further attempts, the boy could not identify the magnetized tree, and the test ended when the boy faked a fainting spell.

The Dream Team called bullshit on Animal Magnetism, stating that the cures attributed to it may have either happened through a normal remission of the problem, or that the cure was a form of self delusion.  Mesmer was outraged by the finding, first blaming Deslon for failing to manipulate Animal Magnetism properly, then claiming that the act of testing Animal Magnetism itself created flawed results.  In other words, a peculiar trait of Animal Magnetism was that it could not function under scientific investigation, and thus could not be tested.  After the experiment, belief in Mesmer and his Animal Magnetism began to decline, however it dragged on in medical theory until the mid 19th century. After a job well done. the 18th Century Scientific Dream Team retired to a local pub, where Ben Franklin got them all drunk and they all had a wild sex orgy with many women. (I made up that part)