top of page

History of Hypnosis and Hypnotism

Extract from ‘Successful Hypnotherapy’ Diploma course ©1981


In any discussion about hypnosis of hypnotic like phenomena we are bedeviled by the lack of a clear acceptable definition. From the ‘physicalists’ (Heidenhain 1888, Pavlov 1923) through the ‘suggestionists’ (Bernheim et al. 1884) to the more recent ‘no special hypnotic state’ school (Barber, Sarbin et al. 1969) it is clear there is a wide divergence of opinion which is likely to persist well into the future.

For this reason, it may be more constructive to look at some of the historical evidence for the existence of the calculated use of suggestion, tracing back from the time of Franz Anton Mesmer.

Pre-Mesmer Period

It is known that Mesmer himself was strongly influenced by Father Maximillian Hell, especially in his speculations about astrology and the influence of the planets upon the human body. Mesmer wrote his Thesis on this. But rather Hell had been using magnets to treat the sick and Mesmer, a physician, made his classic mistake of crediting the magnets with the power of healing, and overlooking the subjective nature of the ‘cures’. Other magnetisers may well have been at work, but without ‘attracting’ the attention subsequently achieved by Mesmer.

Pietro D’Abano (ca 1250 1316)

Pietro D’Abano was (according to World History of Psychiatry, (Ed. John G. Howells) a teacher of medicine, philosophy and astrology in Padua.  He wrote Conciliator Differentiarum and he held ‘… that suggestion (pracentatio) when practiced by a kind and, at the same time authoritative personality, had definite effects on mentally disturbed people well disposed toward this method of treatment’ (my underscoring).

Pietro D’Abano could well have been described as a ‘Suggestionist’: but this was 400 years before Mesmer. There was no need for magnets, but D’Abano might well have considered that Mesmer’s ‘trappings’, however erroneously conceived, may well have heightened the effect of suggestion.

Kutagu Bilig (1069)

A book written in Turkish (according to W.l. of P.) called KutadguBilig, tells about the efsuncus. These were a kind of medical auxiliary, who used ‘suggestion’ to ward off jinns (or demons). They enjoyed a status rather less than that of physicians.

Biblical Times

Both the ‘Old’ and the New Testaments contain numerous references to events seemingly ‘magical’ or ‘miraculous’. Looked at objectively, many such happenings, but by no means all of them, become easier to understand in terms of suggestion.

Hellenistic Period (ca 500 B.C.)

During the Hellenistic Period and later there were numerous Aesculapian Sleep Temples, and these were much in use for the mentally ill. A room was set aside for those who would sleep in the Temple, having been prepared by the priests; and whose dreams were ‘interpreted’ by the priests so as to ‘cast out bad spirits’. The method was basically suggestion; the awe produced by the priest, the solemn procedure and the powerful effect of atmosphere within the Temple, all heightening the effect of suggestion.

Mac Hovec (Hypnosis before Mesmer) reports that the Aesculapian priests sometimes used a brush, as if to brush away’ unhealthy symptoms. Or they would use a cloth, or touch with the hand.

This, of course, is very similar to Mesmer’s passes with or without contact.

Going back still deeper into history, it is well known that ancient civilisations have used what is now called hypnosis. Certainly the ancient Egyptian, Creek and Persian cultures have produced the best documentation.

Ancient Civilizations

Kroger and Fezler (Hypnosis and Behaviour Modification) discuss the ancient Hebrew’s use of magical rites and incantation: they used meditation with chanting; breathing exercises and fixation on the Hebrew letters of the alphabet that spelled GOD (or other name for God).

These ritualistic practices were rather similar to auto hypnosis and produced an ‘ecstasy state’ called Kavanah. ‘In the Talmud, Kavanah implies relaxation, concentration, correct attention (motivation) and all enhanced the ritualistic procedures’ (Kroger and Fezler).

Benson (The Relaxation Response) cites other traditional religious practices capable of achieving ‘altered states of consciousness) and what he calls the ‘relaxation response).

Ancient Egyptians (2980 2900)

Again quoting World History of Psychiatry, ‘one of the interesting psychotherapeutic methods ancient Egypt was the ‘incubation’, or ‘temple sleep’. This method was associated with the name of Imhotep, the earliest known physician in history. Imhotep (he comes in peace) was the Physician Vizier of the Pharaoh Zoser (2980 2900 B.C.)


The Temples of Imhotep were busy centres for incubation or sleep therapy and ‘shrine sleep’ is still encountered in some parts of Africa and the Middle East’.

‘ Under the influence of incantation, and through the performances of religious rituals, sick persons were psychologically prepared for such therapeutic procedures’.

Pre History

While it is true that the very early origins of Hypnotic like behaviours are ‘shrouded in mystery and magic’, much can be inferred. One of the best descriptions of the pre history development of suggestion therapy is given by Brian Inglis (Natural Medicine), in which he deals with Shamanism, Witch Doctors, Suggestion, etc.

Tribal Man

‘… Tribal man began to rely on memory, rather than instinct, to tell him which berries were safe to eat, and from which springs it was safe to drink; decisions were left to the elders of the tribe.

Tribal Doctors

There was, however, another health service available to him. If consciousness could be suspended for a while, instinct or intuition might provide the answers. An individual who could ‘dissociate’ enter into a state of trance, in order to consult instinct was consequently regarded as of great value to the tribe; the obvious choice, in fact, as Tribal Doctor.

When explorers, missionaries, and traders began to describe what they had seen of tribal customs, their reports showed that tribes all over the world employed what they variously described as shamans, witch doctors or medicine men, chosen because of their ability.

Sometimes the tribal doctor would simply become abstracted, as if unaware of his surroundings; on recovering consciousness, he would relate what he had seen, and learned, in his trance. More often or perhaps it was more often reported, because it was more striking he had what looked like a fit, foaming at the mouth and going into convulsions, until the voice sounding unlike his own would speak through him, or sometimes to him’.

Animal Magnetism

The magnetic properties of pieces of lodestone and later, magnetic iron ore, have interested and puzzled countless enquiring minds. At the time of Mesmer, in eighteenth century Europe, magnets were sometimes used in the treatment of nervous illnesses, and there were reports of cures of stomach troubles and toothache.

A Jesuit priest, Maximillian Hell, a friend of Anton Mesmer, was court astronomer and head of the observatory in Vienna, He had obtained some of the improved hardened steel magnets, following information given to him about their curative effects, and he carried out a number of experiments. He then published a report of twenty successes in a Viennese news sheet.

After reading Father Hell’s report, Mesmer published a letter to the public, in which he asserted that the magnet merely acted as a conductor of the force or fluid that influenced the patient. This was dated January 19th, 1775.

Franz Anton Mesmer

Whether Maximillian Hell used magnets before Mesmer is of little importance now, since it was the latter’s flair and tenacity of purpose that resulted in the long and controversial introduction of ‘animal magnetism’ Mesmer’s term to the world of medicine.


Franz Anton Mesmer was born on May 23rd, 1734 at Iznang on Lake Constance in Austria. He grew up in a world turning more and more to science. Mesmer obtained a scholarship to enter the University of Dillingen in Bavaria, at the age of 16, and he spent four years there studying logic, metaphysics and theology. he also studied at the University of Ingoldstadt, in Bavaria.  After two years at the University of Vienna, reading law, Anton Mesmer decided to apply to the medical schools, where he took his degree after six years. 


Despite the claims made against Mesmer, it would appear to be indisputable that his academic knowledge was well founded.  He spent sixteen years at Universities and was awarded two doctorates in medicine and philosophy.

Mesmer’s Thesis

Mesmer’s great interest in astronomy was evident in the thesis he wrote for his final doctorate. This was entitled: ‘The influence of the Planets on the Human Body’.

Some of Mesmer’s many detractors mistakenly believed him to be involved in astrology, when in fact he was concerned with forces that operate within the solar system. Mesmer himself cites Newton’s hypothesis of ‘a certain subtle spirit’ pervading all material bodies by the force of which they attract one another. Newton also writes of ‘electric and elastic spirit’.

Another writer who almost certainly influenced Anton Mesmer was Hermann Boerhaave, the Dutch physician and scientist, whose lectures were published after his death. It was Mesmer’s supervisor van Swieten, who wrote the commentaries to the lectures.

Boerhaaves’s view that metals, particularly copper, were influenced with a certain power or force that could be efficacious foreshadowed Mesmer’s magnetic theory.

In his thesis, Mesmer termed ‘animal gravitation’ what, in his later writings, became ‘animal magnetism’. He believed that when the ebb and flow of the fluid within a human organism was disturbed through being out of harmony with the universal rhythm mental or nervous illness could result.

Anton Mesmer, using a mixture of conventional methods and the application of magnets, quickly drew attention to himself in Vienna, and some of it was hostile. He obtained a number of remarkable cures and listed, in his first published report: cures for apoplectic lameness, epilepsy, hysteria, melancholia and fitful fever. His method with magnets (horse shoe shaped magnets) was to apply them to the patient’s body, at the soles of the feet and upon the chest.

To his credit, Mesmer emphasised that the magnets were not crucial. He had demonstrated that almost anything would do in place of magnets e.g. metals, wood, silk, paper, stone, glass and water.

It is not entirely clear why Mesmer decided to leave Vienna, but what is certain is that the Faculty were unhappy about his use of ‘animal magnetism’ and Mesmer himself was weary and disheartened because of the criticism, and his being involved in a protracted disagreement, and unpleasant scenes, with the family of a blind girl who disputed his claimed cure. He arrived in Paris in 1778.

Mesmer’s Paris Salon

When Mesmer first set up his Salon in a large rented mansion in the Place Vendome, there was no lack of interest. His reputation had preceded him, and there were many wealthy patients to be seen at high fees, as well as those who would pay less. After several months, he moved to a house in the village of Ceteil, just a few miles from Paris, and it was here that the famous baquet made its first appearance.

The baquet, a large round oak barrel about the height of a low table, enabled people to sit around it who then had access to the movable iron rods that pierced its cover. The lower ends of the rods located into the vessels of magnetised water, and each vessel itself immersed in water containing iron filings, glass filaments and some other material. Variations included cords to replace the rods, and sand to replace the water.

This contraption made it possible for Mesmer and his assistants to treat a number of patients together a form of group therapy. Patients sat around the baquet, holding hands to assist the circulation of the ‘magnetic fluid’, and bringing the affected parts into contact with the rods or cords. Anton Mesmer would move among them, resplendent in his lilac silk robe, sometimes talking quietly and from time to time making passes with his iron wand or hands. He would also ‘fix the patient with his penetrating eyes’. There would usually be some appropriate piano music and, just occasionally, Mesmer himself would play his glass armonica.

It should be remembered that the scene described was enacted in the 1780’s; that silk robes were as commonplace then as double-breasted jackets are now; and that Mesmer, as well as acting upon his patients, was himself being acted upon by his patients by their expectations and their responses to his methods. He was exploring a new therapeutic relationship.

At his Paris Salon, when he shortly moved back into Paris and converted the building known as the Hotel Bullion, in the Rue Coq Heron, Mesmer had the great aid of his partner and friend Dr. Charles D’Eslon. They were so successful that frequently would-be patients had to leave without treatment, bitterly disappointed. Mesmer realised that he did not need the baquet, so he used a large tree, as he had done before in Vienna, and often a hundred people were said to be sitting around the tree in the Paris suburbs and holding cords that were attached to the branches of the tree. Many of these subsequently reported that they were cured-or felt better. It is not difficult to see why Mesmer was attacked by orthodox medical practitioners. In 1782, Mesmer and his associates founded the Society of Harmony.  One hundred subscribers would each pay 100 louis d’or (over £400 at present values) and receive, in return, full instruction in Mesmer’s methods and the right to practice in specified towns.

Among the subscribers was the Marquis de Puysegur and the Marquis de Lafayette.  The Society was a great success and soon other Societies of Harmony were operating in the French provinces and abroad. Important discoveries about the therapy were to be made by the Marquis de Puysegur, in particular, and others who had been introduced to the subject for the first time by Anton Mesmer.

But the hostility and rancour continued, with both Mesmer and D’Eslon pressing for investigations that would, they believed, make them acceptable to the Establishment.

During Anton Mesmer’s declining years and after his death, Mesmer’s pupil and friend, the Marquis de Puysegur, continued to practice and teach animal magnetism. Later, de Puysegur’s student and friend, Professor Jean Deleuze, demonstrated post hypnotic suggestion, probably for the first time.

Baron Dupotet de Sennevoy, noted for his work at the Saltpetriere, lectured in France and later in England on animal magnetism. It was Dupotet who fired the imagination of John Elliotson. Dupotet was a member of yet another Commission of Enquiry set up by the Academy of Science. The findings vindicated Mesmer but provoked intense opposition. The Report was held up until 1831, five years after the Enquiry sat, and was never published.

John Elliotson was undoubtedly a leading physician of his day. He introduced the use of the stethoscope into England and was noted for other medical advances. Elliotson was appointed Professor of the Practice of Medicine, in 1831, to University College, and was mainly instrumental in founding University College Hospital.

John Elliotson had seen the demonstrations of Chenevix in 1829, but it was the lectures of Dupotet, in 1837, that sparked off his own researches into animal magnetism. But he ran into considerable opposition to this work and, in 1838, the Council of University College ordered EIliotson to cease the practice of mesmerism. He was so incensed that he resigned his appointments at both College and Hospital.

In 1843, Elliotson and his followers started the publication of a quarterly journal called the Zoist, to which Elliotson contributed numerous medical articles, including reports on painless mesmeric operations of thigh, leg, arms, breast, etc. According to Milne Bramwell, the influence of the Zoist, which ran from April 1843 until December 1855, resulted in mesmeric institutions being formed in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, while the Zoist contained much that would be acceptable even today, it also devoted a good deal of space to subjects like clairvoyance, phrenology and odylic force, which were ridiculed by Elliotson’s detractors.  One of the regular contributors to the Zoist was James Esdaile (1808 – 1859).

James Esdaile made his first mesmeric experiments in 1845, when in charge of the Native Hospital at Hooghly, in India. He subsequently used mesmeric analgesia successfully in numerous operations though he was not the first. (The first recorded operation using mesmerism to produce analgesia was carried out by Dr’s Topham and Squire Ward, in amputation of the leg).

In 1846, Esdaile was given a small hospital in Calcutta. Despite a petition attesting to its success, this mesmeric hospital was closed down. A second hospital making full use of mesmerism was established in 1848, entirely supported by voluntary contributions, the greater bulk of which came from the native population.

By the time Esdaile was ready to leave India, he had carried out thousands of painless operations, and no less than three hundred of them were major operations. These included nineteen amputations and the removal of scrotal tumours.

Despite Esdaile’s vigorous defence of mesmerism for painless surgery the introduction of ether then chloroform signalled the virtual end of that application of mesmerism. One year after leaving India, in 1852, James Esdaile published his pamphlet entitled ‘The Introduction of ,mesmerism as an Anaesthetic and Curative Agent into the Hospitals of India’.

James Braid  1795 – 1860

 A Scottish surgeon of high repute. James Braid was to give the phenomena usually associated with mesmerism a respectable scientific rationale, and it was he who coined the words: hypnotism, hypnotic, hypnotise, etc. (Greek: Hypnos sleep).


Braid first witnessed mesmerism in 1841 when it was demonstrated by Lafontaine.  He was not impressed by this, believing mesmeric effects to be due to trickery.

But Braid was present at a second ‘seance’ when Lafontaine’s presentation of a somnambule was greeted with accusations of trickery, and several members of the audience, including Braid, went up onto the rostrum to investigate the ‘mesmerised’ girl. Braid tested her by forcing a pin beneath a finger nail and was very impressed that she showed no signs of discomfort. Thereafter, Braid carried out numerous experiments and became a true convert. James Braid’s classic ‘Neurypnology, or the Rationale of Nervous Sleep’, appeared in 1843, and sold eight hundred copies.

Braid’s scientific approach to hypnotism, and his new terminology, made it possible for many influential people to embrace the subject who would not otherwise have done so. But even more important was Braid’s assertion that hypnotic effects were a subjective phenomenon, and not produced directly by the hypnotiser.

While it is true that the Abbé Faria, in 1814, had anticipated Braid’s important findings, Braid’s total contribution was on a considerable scale.

The Nancy School

Auguste Ambrose Liebeault (1823 1904), and Hippolyte Bernheim (1840 l919). These two founded the so called Nancy school, which was to prove to be of very great significance in the establishment of a hypnotherapy acceptable in many quarters.

Liebeault is often described as a ‘simple country doctor’, but by offering
to treat without charge the peasants of Nancy he was able to amass a considerable experience and expertise with hypnosis. His first study of hypnosis began in 1860. In 1882 he obtained a cure for sciatica in a patient long treated without success by Bernheim, a fashionable doctor in Paris. As a consequence of this, Bernheim began making regular visits to Nancy, and the two men became good friends and colleagues. Bernheim published the first part of his book, De la Suggestion, in 1884. The second part, La Therapeutic Suggestive, followed in 1886.

These books by Bernheim established his friend, and Liebeault’s own book, which had been published twenty years before and sold only one copy, were now quickly bought up.

Liebeault confined himself to working for the poor, refusing to accept any fee. Bernheim, from 1882, made a practice of hypnotising all hospital patients who came into his care. After four years, about five thousand hypnotic inductions yielded a seventy five per cent success rate. Several years later, the number of inductions had risen to ten thousand and the success rate was eighty five per cent.

In the same year that Bernhein had discovered Liebeault 1882, Jean Martin Charcot (1835 1893) presented his findings on hypnotism to the French Academy of Sciences.

Charcot believed that hypnosis was essentially hysteria, and being an understanding neurologist of his day he was listened to with great respect. In fact, Charcot had obtained much of his knowledge of hypnotism from his work with twelve hysterics at the Saltpetriere, and most of his conclusions on the subject were based on that tiny sample.

The Nancy school opposed Charcot’s conclusion of hysteria, and won acceptance of hypnosis as an essentially normal consequence of suggestion.


In 1885 Sigmund Freud (1856 1939) spent some time with Charcot,
and was very impressed. He was also to translate into German Bernheim’s De la Suggestion. In Vienna, Freud and his friend Joseph Breuer used hypnosis successfully in psychotherapy and, in 1895, they produced their classic Studies in Hysteria.


Freud had visited Nancy in 1889, and this visit had convinced him of the ‘powerful mental processes which nevertheless remain hidden from the consciousness of men’.

Later, he was to abandon hypnosis. He discovered the ‘positive transference’ when a female patient he had awakened from hypnosis threw her arms around his neck. On this Freud wrote ‘I was modest enough not to attribute the event to my own irresistible personal attraction, and I felt that I had now grasped the nature of the mysterious element that was at work behind hypnotism’.

He subsequently developed free association and psychoanalysis and was able to control and use the transference phenomena.

At the end of the nineteenth century Wetterstrand, Kraft Ebing, Albert Moll and numerous others were adding to the written record. Dr. Oskar Vogt developed the induction method of fractionation, and one of his students, Johannes Schultz, was later to introduce Autogenic Training considered by many to be a form of auto hypnosis.

The first decades of this century produced workers such as Forel, Schilders and Kauders, Emile Coué, etc.

Coué had studied at Nancy, and is associated with the New Nancy school. He made a big reputation with his work on Auto Suggestion and gave us, among other insights into the mind, his ‘law of reverse effort’.

Pierre Janet followed on from Charcot; it was Janet who was largely responsible for the ‘dissociation’ theory of hypnosis. The great I. Pavlov, of course, demonstrated the conditional reflex, and put forward his  reciprocal inhibition of the cortex theory to explain hypnosis rather similar to that of Haidenhain in 1888.

In the thirties, M.H. Erikson contributed massively and C.L. Hull, in 1933,

published Hypnotism and Suggestibility, arguably the most scientific treatment of hypnotism available, nearly fifty years later.

In recent years thousands more articles and monographs have added to the mountain of literature on hypnotherapy. Max Dessoir’s Bibliography of Modern Hypnotism (first published in 1888 and its Appendix added in 1890) listed 1,182 works by 774 writers. The list now is truly formidable.

It is certainly worth mentioning Lewis R. Wolberg and the two Hilgards Ernest R. and Josephine R. whose writings are impressive. And it is worth recalling the achievement of A.A. Mason who, in the early fifties, used hypnotic suggestion to cure a fifteen year old boy of his ichthyosiform erythrodermia of Brocq, a congenital skin disease in which the skin is covered with fishlike scales, and which was thought previously to be incurable. Andrew Salter’s theory of the conditional reflex to explain hypnotic effects has been followed, more recently, by the writings of Barber, Sarbin and Orne, whose position generally is no ‘special state’ in hypnosis.

What has become known as the ‘special state no special state controversy’ is not likely to be resolved until there are major advances in the biological sciences, and perhaps not even then. Modern hypnotherapy has survived controversies, mistrust and open hostility to reach its present insecure position among the healing arts.

Whatever the particular controversy that happens to rage, perhaps most fair minded observers would agree: Hypnotherapy has survived because enough determined men have fought on, and because enough people have benefited from it.

© Successful Hypnotherapy Diploma Course

Please do not reproduce without prior permission.

Pietro Dabano
bottom of page