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Hypnosis in History: Dr John Elliotson


Following in the footsteps of Mesmer, Dr John Elliotson (1791-1868) built further on the medical uses of hypnosis, even founding a 'mesmerist hospital' in 1849. Unfortunately, his legitimate work became mixed with false ideas and frauds and caused massive scandal in the strict Victorian society.

John ElliotsonThe son of a well-known London chemist, Elliotson studied medicine in the Edinburgh, Cambridge, and London Universities. In 1831 he became a professor of the 'principles and practice of physic', and was well-liked for his intelligent and lively lectures, which were often reported in the medical news. By 1834 he was a practising physician at University College Hospital. He was certainly a brilliant man, known for his interests in new discoveries such as the stethoscope, the study of allergy treatments, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not all of his ideas have held up until the present, though; he was also the founder and first president of the London Phrenological Society, phrenology being the theory that a person’s personality can be read by measuring the bumps on their head (a popular idea at the time).

Elliotson became interested in mesmerism, as hypnotism was then called, upon reading articles about it in medical journals. These included accounts from Richard Chenevix and Baron du Potet, who used hypnotism to treat young ladies with epilepsy. Elliotson decided to try this for himself. He would put his subjects in trance by waving his hand back and forth very close to their faces, or applying magnets to their skin; it was believed at the time that the magnetism caused the trance. Elliotson proposed that lighter or deeper hypnosis could be induced with different sized magnets.

Elliotson’s best subjects were Elizabeth and Jane Okey, teenage sisters from a working-class family who were admitted to the charity hospital. Elizabeth suffered from 'fits', probably epileptic in nature; she had been treated via hypnosis by Baron du Potet, and Elliotson continued this treatment.

He soon noticed this wasn’t the only effect, however. Elizabeth was a shy, respectable housemaid but, in trance, she would speak freely and flirt, tell jokes, make fun of the doctor, and sing and dance. This led to Elliotson putting on popular shows in which he put the sisters in trance on stage for the amusement of the public. The audience encouraged their odd behaviour in trance, so their acts became more shocking and showier.

Elliotson also found Elizabeth felt no pain when he stuck a large needle into her or gave her electric shocks, showing how hypnosis could be used in place of anaesthetic; years later, in 1843, he wrote Surgical Operations in the Mesmeric State without Pain. These demonstrations were reported in the respected medical journal, The Lancet. Fans of Elliotson’s work included the authors Dickens and Thackeray; Elliotson taught Dickens how to make 'mesmeric passes' (the hand movements) himself.

One especially interesting incident occurred on the stage; Elliotson attempted to bring Elizabeth out of trance, but she wouldn’t wake, whatever he did. Then his assistant, Wood, had an idea; he asked her how she would like to wake. Elizabeth declared that Wood must wake her by rubbing her neck. Elliotson himself tried rubbing her neck, with no response. When Wood did, she woke right away. This proves the hypnotised person always has control of themselves and the hypnotist can’t force them to do anything, even something so harmless as coming out of trance!

Unfortunately, controversy arose. Many thought the Okey sisters were frauds, and that Elliotson was either a fool or in on the trick. Other doctors thought they were making a joke of the medical profession by performing silly tricks on stage while claiming to be demonstrating a medical technique, and the public found the girls’ crude and flirtatious behaviour in trance offensive and scandalous. The surgeon Robert Liston disapproved of its use for surgical pain relief, preferring to operate very fast to leave the patient in pain as short a time as possible, which often led to carelessness, death of the patient, and sometimes injury to the surgical assistants.

Elliotson and the sisters didn’t help their case by branching out into so-called medical clairvoyance; Elliotson would lead the entranced girls around the hospital wards and have them try to psychically diagnose other patients with the help of their spirit guide. Members of the public came to the hospital to see them, disrupting the treatment of patients. Elliotson’s former friend, Thomas Wakley, founding editor of The Lancet, couldn’t let this go on anymore and decided to expose the sisters as frauds once and for all.

In 1838, Elliotson and Wakley brought the Okey sisters and ten witnesses, both sceptics and believers, to Wakley’s home. As Elliotson had used magnets to induce trance, Elizabeth’s sight was blocked with a board and Wakley touched her hand with un-magnetised lead and a nickel magnet. The lead caused no response, but the nickel put her into an immediate trance.

Wakley was not convinced and suggested a repeat of the test; however, this time, he secretly hid the nickel magnet and used an ordinary coin, but had his accomplice William Hering say, 'Take care, do not apply the nickel too strongly!' Elizabeth reacted to the coin in the same way as she had the magnet, and Wakley declared this proof that she was acting. He also ran a series of experiments in which the sisters were asked to tell the difference between magnetised and un-magnetised metals and between ordinary and 'mesmerised' water (water which has had a person direct their intentions strongly into it), which they were not able to reliably do.

As we know now, the patient’s expectation and cooperation play a large part in inducing trance, so Elizabeth thinking she should be put into trance by magnets did the trick, rather than the magnet itself. However, this wasn’t known at the time, and Elliotson was denounced as a fraud.

The university board forbade Elliotson from performing any more mesmerism and so, in 1838, he resigned. Over a hundred of his students signed a petition asking for him to be brought back, but it failed. Instead, Elliotson continued his private practice and, in 1842, started his own medical journal, named The Zoist, devoted mainly to scientific studies of hypnosis. By 1850 he had founded the London Mesmeric Hospital, in which hypnosis was used in place of ether or chloroform (the anaesthetics used at the time) during surgery.


Image: Source =http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B06604, Author =Lithographed from a Picture by Jas. Ramsay Date =Unknown, believed by the National Library of Medicine to be in the public domain



Debbie's Blog

deb180.square2Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.

For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593. 

Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.


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