Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Mesmerising evidence

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 29 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3045
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    Feeling slightly under the weather recently, I decided to go to bed with a book. I looked on my shelves for a suitable volume and alighted on Harriet Martineau’s Life in the Sick Room.

    My copy once belonged to Henry W Longfellow, the American poet who in his day was as popular as Tennyson but is now almost unread. Harriet Martineau (1802-76) was also popular in her day as a novelist, pamphleteer, travel writer, and social campaigner but is now even less read than Longfellow.

    Always rather sickly and virtually deaf, resorting from an early age to an ear trumpet, Martineau spent the years 1839-44 as an almost bedbound invalid at Tynemouth, in the north of England. Her Life in the Sick Room (1844) was the fruit of her experience. It is not certain what was wrong with her: that she had an ovarian cyst is well known, but on the other hand she was restored to good health by a mesmerist, suggesting that in large part her problems were psychological.

    During her period of invalidity she became dependent upon opiates. Nothing interested her except the next dose: “I observed, with inexpressible shame, that no details of the perils of empires, or of the starving miseries of thousands of my countrymen, could keep my eye from the watch before me, or detain my attention one second beyond the time when I might have my opiate.”

    Efforts to give up were unavailing: “For two years, I wished and intended to dispense with my opiate for once, to try how much there was to bear, and how I should bear it; but I never did . . . and I have now long given up all thoughts of it.”

    Then she tried Mr Spencer Hall, the mesmerist who happened to be visiting Newcastle. With nothing to lose she tried him and tells what happened in her Letters on Mesmerism (1845): “Various passes were tried by Mr Hall; the first that appeared effectual, and the most so for some time after, were passes over the head, made from behind,—passes from the forehead to the back of the head, and a little way down the spine. I became sensible of an extraordinary appearance, most unexpected, and wholly unlike anything I had ever conceived of. Something seemed to diffuse itself through the atmosphere,—not like smoke, nor steam, nor haze,—but most like a clear twilight, closing in from the windows and down from the ceiling.”

    The next day Mr Hall was ill (mesmerist, heal thyself?) and Martineau got her servant to imitate him. “Within one minute the twilight and phosphoric lights appeared; and in two or three more, a delicious sense of ease spread through me,—a cool comfort, before which all pain and distress gave way, oozing out, as it were, at the soles of my feet. I could no more help exclaiming with pleasure than a person in torture crying out with pain. I became hungry, and ate with relish, for the first time for five years.”

    She didn’t miss her opiates and soon gave them up altogether.

    She described sceptics of mesmerism as having “minds self-exiled from the region of evidence,” a very good phrase that surely describes us all at times. But what counts as evidence? That, of course, is the difficult question.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3045

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