The Mesmerist

Written by Wendy Moore

In the 1830s Dr John Elliotson became an early advocate of medical discoveries, such as the stethoscope. He was convinced by mesmerism, and began experimenting on Elizabeth Okey, a meek sixteen-year-old housemaid with epilepsy. She went swiftly into a trance, when she began flirting, singing, diagnosing and predicting death. University College Hospital became so swamped with visitors to demonstrations in both lecture theatre and wards that other doctors made strenuous objections. The surgeon Lister tried to ban him. One of the proven benefits of mesmerism was that subjects experienced no pain, even with amputations, but the surgeons refused to use it. Elliotson’s experiments became more bizarre, without proper scientific rigor. When forbidden to experiment at UCH he resigned, and continued his experiments and demonstrations elsewhere.

This is a fascinating, readable account, not just of mesmerism, but also of early Victorian society and a dedicated doctor who is drawn into a passionate and unwise spate of experiments because of his obsession. It is thoroughly researched, the medical aspects clearly explained. It is a book for nonprofessionals as well as medical historians.