With an eye to pain relief

The Evolution of Hypnotism
May 12, 2000

This book traces the history of hypnotism in the West from its beginnings in the work of Anton Mesmer at the end of the 18th century to the present. It records how "mesmerism" gradually became transformed into hypnotism, acquiring in the process at least a veneer of scientific respectability. Hypnotism is often thought to be synonymous with the induction of a sleep-like state called a trance, but Mesmer did not introduce the trance to medicine; this was the contribution of one of his followers, the Marquis de Puysegur.

In Britain, an early, uncritical, practitioner of mesmerism was John Elliotson, professor of medicine at University College Hospital, London. His support for the new system of treatment eventually cost him his post. Another doctor, James Braid, had a more scientific approach to the subject, but he remained an isolated figure and interest in hypnotism fell away in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s until it was revived by the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882.

The first major operation to be performed using hypnotism as an analgesic was carried out in 1842 by W. Squire Ward, who amputated the leg of a 42-year-old labourer; the mesmerist was a barrister who had an amateur interest in the subject. James Esdaile, a Scottish doctor in India, read about Ward's case and decided to try mesmerism for surgery on his own patients; he carried out a number of operations successfully in this way, but he was unable to get his papers accepted for publication and soon the advent of chemical anaesthesia prevented widespread interest in hypnotism as an analgesic. Esdaile often used Indian assistants to induce the hypnotic trance, and his methods may have had some connection with yoga.

Meanwhile, in France, Jean-Martin Charcot was using hypnotism to study hysteria at the Salpetri re, where Sigmund Freud attended some of his demonstrations in 1885-86. Charcot regarded the phenomena as neuromuscular in origin, but a rival school arose at Nancy that held that the role of suggestion was paramount; this is still the prevalent view today, although there is no general agreement about exactly what the hypnotic state is, or even whether it exists at all. Derek Forrest considers the modern situation in his final chapter, though without committing himself on the exact status of hypnotism.

Forrest was professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, and has used hypnotism for more than 40 years in therapy, so his interest in the subject is clinical as well as historical. His book covers much the same ground as Alan Gauld's A History of Hypnotism (1992) but is aimed at a less specialised audience. This being so, it might have benefited from rather more vigorous pruning, since some of the anecdotal material it contains is of somewhat marginal interest.

Anthony Campbell is emeritus consultant physician, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital.

The Evolution of Hypnotism

Author - Derek Forrest
ISBN - 1 872988 37 7
Publisher - Black Ace
Price - £29.95
Pages - 383

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