From Publishers Weekly
Winter, an associate professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, delivers an accessible account of one of the most overlooked episodes in the history of medicine and popular culture. Equal parts cultural study and history of science, Winter's book uses mesmerism?the practice of using suggestion and "magnetic fields" to induce trancelike states?as a window onto the development of experimental science in 19th-century Britain. With a healthy pragmatism, Winter dismisses as uninteresting the question of the objective reality of mesmeric phenomena. Instead, she concentrates on the social and intellectual conditions that made it possible for many respectable Victorians (among them, Carlyle, Dickens and Harriet Martineau) to believe in the unlikely technique named after the Prussian charlatan Franz Anton Mesmer. Winter skillfully dissects the heated ideological debates over mesmerism between the medical faculties of progressive University College and traditional King's College. Similarly keen is her critical examination of class and gender in early mesmeric experiments, staged events that typically used destitute women as guinea pigs. Most impressive, though, is a marvelous chapter on the relationship between mesmerism and British imperialism, in which Winter shows how the British used "animal magnetism" to confirm their prejudices toward the subject Indian population. Winter combines a flair for storytelling with a scrupulous attention to historical evidence, offering a history at once intellectually satisfying and, well, mesmerizing. Illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of Victorian culture that views mesmerism as a reflection of human interaction, gender differences, medical and scientific dilemmas, and relations of power and authority in Britain and colonial India. Conceived of by the 18th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer, the technique of one person's control over the mind and body of another reached England in the 1830s and remained, according to Winter (History/Calif. Institute of Technology), at the center of Victorian public attention for three decades. The initial propagators of mesmerism were traveling lecturers. They organized public demonstrations in which a subject (usually female) was put in a trance, induced when the mesmerist passed his hands along her body. The trance caused paranormal reactions, including clairvoyance, extraordinary sensitivity, and suspension of pain. Some mesmerists were skilled enough to diagnose and even treat a patient during a seance; a hospital was set up to sponsor experiments testing the healing properties of mesmerism. Perhaps the most fascinating proof of mesmerisms medical effectiveness was a series of public surgical operations held to remove tumors and limbs: throughout, patients felt no discomfort. The spread of mesmeric pain suppression techniques stimulated research into anaesthetic substances; mesmerism was eventually superseded by ether. Yet along with the medical establishment, the clergy vehemently opposed this psychic practice. (Some priests saw a threat in the potential explanation of Jesus' miracles as acts of mesmerism.) Even after mesmerisms demise in Britain, it was practiced in India (where it resembled indigenous healing methods). Mesmerism helped to change English medical practices and contributed to the rise of women as public figuresfor many female patients (Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett) regarded their sickness and mesmeric treatment as a source of authority. A captivating inquiry into a bizarre and neglected mystical phenomenon. (59 line drawings, 23 photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.