Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 9, 1842 --- Mesmerism

James Wombell, a laborer suffering from excruciating pain in his left knee, is brought to a London mesmerist, W. Topham, a Middle Temple barrister by profession. Dr. John Elliotson (left), who had been sacked from London Hospital for his belief in Mesmerism, is consulting.

Wombell literally cannot sleep for the pain but Topham speedily puts him in a painless trance for 35 minutes. Working with Wombell daily, "making passes longitudinally over the diseased knee," Topham soon has the man sleeping seven hours a night. Surgeons conclude however that Wombell's leg must be amputated. The man must be mesmerised both to quiet his fears (prompted no doubt by the screams of the patient before him) and to ease the pain enough for him to be moved.

During the operation, Topham "gently" held Wombell's eyelids closed. Dr. Elliotson reports "the stillness was something awful ... the placid look on [Wombell's] countenance never changed." He awoke to say, "I bless the Lord to find it's all over." He complained only of slight discomfort and remembered nothing but "a slight crunching sound."

Dr. Elliotson and Topham bring their amazing story to the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society. They are greeted with cries of "Sham," affidavits are demanded, and the city's foremost surgeon Dr. Marshall Hall dismissed it as "trumpery." Another doctor insisted "Pain is a wise provision of nature, and patients ... are all the better for it." The RMCS soon adopted a resolution to expunging Elliotson's report from the official minutes. Elliotson responded by publishing Numerous Cases of Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State. The established professional journals closed to his writings, Elliotson's articles appeared in such short-lived journals as The Phreno-Magnet which he contributed "Jumping Fits Cured by Mesmerism."

Elliotson's disciples included Dickens and Thackeray. Dickens believed he had mesmerising powers of his own, using them to cure his wife's headaches; a problem he may very well have caused as well as cured. Thackeray dedicated his novel Pendennis to Elliotson believing the doctor had saved his life.

Sketch of Elliotson from the Royal Society of Medicine

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