Professor John Elliotson: The Curious Case of A Victorian Mesmerist

In 1837, medicine was a developing yet brutal field. Crucial operations were performed without any pain relief, and the medications which were used to aid both patient and surgeon were often toxic.

The search for pain relief was a lucrative business, but across the continent, people were looking to other alternatives. One of these alternatives arrived in London after gaining popularity in Paris – Mesmerism.

The practice of Mesmerism was introduced to Paris in 1778, when German physician Franz Anton Mesmer claimed he could place people in a sleep-like trance, in which they would obey his commands and become unresponsive to pain.

Most of the medical professionals during the Victorian era were heavily against the practice of Mesmerism, but one doctor, namely Professor John Elliotson, was captivated with the idea.

Professor John Elliotson began studying and practicing Mesmerism for 18 months between 1837 and 1838. He performed demonstrations at University College Hospital and grew to fame for his imaginative lectures. His lectures attracted large audiences and were covered by favorable headlines in the press.

As Elliotsons’ lectures continued to pull in more students, more funds were raised for the University College Hospital. 

A Freak Show of Two Sisters

Two patients were brought to University College Hospital to be treated for epilepsy. They were two sisters known as Elizabeth and Jane Okey, aged sixteen and seventeen. This wouldn’t be the girls’ first experience with Mesmerism, as Elizabeth had previously been treated by Baron Dupotet, which had apparently proven to be more successful than any other type of therapy.

Professor John Elliotson would now carry on treating the girls by placing them under magnetic trances. Just like under the influence of Baron Dupotet, the symptoms appeared to have been relieved.

Despite the success of the treatment, what appeared to fascinate Professor John Elliotson the most, was Elizabeth’s bizarre behaviour. She was usually a quiet, shy girl. Having been placed in a Mesmeric trance, she would have outbursts of singing, telling stories, dancing, mimicking and mocking doctors, and telling rude jokes.

The treatment of Elizabeth in the eyes of Elliotson was a success, and he continued to practice on her sister, Jane. These two sisters would go on to claim celebrity status. As audiences continued to be drawn in, the skeptics were also growing, and ready to defame the girls as fraudsters.

One of the spectators who attended demonstrations, was Charles Dickens, who was captivated by Elizabeth and the emerging idea of Mesmerism. He once proclaimed to a friend, ‘I am a believer.’ He even studied the practice himself, and attempted to mesmerize his wife, sister-in-law and several of his friends. He even integrated the idea of Mesmerism into his novels, and said ‘I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying Pan.’ What Dickens saw during the demonstrations clearly changed his mind, as previously, he had been an ardent skeptic.

The Downfall of Professor John Elliotson

Medical professionals in the Victorian era were deeply concerned by the relationship between the Okey sisters and Professor John Elliotson. During the demonstrations, the mocking of the doctor by the patient, was viewed as highly disrespectful to the social authority of the doctor, and lacking in professionalism. Worse still, his demonstrations were viewed simply as freak shows, without any scientific evidence and reasoning.

As Elizabeth often acted out the experiments on stage, they began to take a toll on her, making her increasingly ill. When she wasn’t being mesmerized on stage, she was becoming increasingly delirious away from it. Elliotson disregarded her worsening condition, and continued to ignore the idea that she could be acting. To Elliotson, this was a vital development in the medical field, for the skeptic, it was nothing more than a claim to fame.

Elliotson’s toughest test would come in the form of a friend, and the founding editor of The Lancet, Thomas Wakley. Wakley was familiar with the work of Elliotson and Mesmerism, having reported on his work previously in The Lancet. Wakley however, made it his primary aim to expose any hoax and subject scientific research to scrutiny – he was a skeptic, and set about putting Professor John Elliotson to the test.

Elliotson however, was out to prove to Wakley that Mesmerism was an authentic practice. On 16th August 1838, Elliotson took the Okey sisters to Wakley’s home at 35 Bedford Square. At Wakley’s home, there was a small audience of 5 skeptics, and 5 believers.

Thomas Wakley sat down in front of Elizabeth, and a thick piece of paste-board was held in front of her face to prevent her from seeing, Wakley then proceeded to place a piece of lead in her hand, which had no effect on her. A piece of magnetized nickel was then placed on Elizabeth, and her face became “violently flushed, the eyes were convulsed into a staring squint, she fell back in the chair, her breathing was hurried, her limbs were rigid.” Elliotson was ecstatic, his experiment had worked, but Wakley wasn’t done, he ordered another test be carried out.

This time, Wakley would trick Elizabeth. He privately conversed with his colleague, a reporter for The Lancet – Mr J.F. Clarke. He informed Mr Clarke, that this time he wouldn’t use any nickel, and gave the nickel he was holding to Clarke, who put it in his pocket, and then moved to the far side of the room. Wakley then instead placed a piece of lead, and a farthing onto Elizabeth’s skin, to which she reacted as she had done previously with the nickel. Elliotson was overjoyed once again as he thought the experiment had been a success, but his joy was short lived, as Wakley revealed that he had in fact tricked her. Mr Clarke afterward took the nickel from his pocket and showed it to those observing.

Elliotson claimed there had been a mistake, and persuaded Wakley to investigate further.

Professor John Elliotson went on his annual 6-week holiday, giving Wakley the perfect opportunity to test the two sisters himself, after which, he claimed to have exposed them as frauds.

The Okey sisters began to claim that they had inherited more paranormal powers from the experiments, one of which was the ability to foresee people’s death. They would walk the corridors of University College Hospital and predict when patients would die. Though their prophecies usually came true, the sisters were expelled, and mesmerism banned.

After being challenged by other professionals in the medical field, Elliotson resigned from University College Hospital which he had founded, and instead began the London Mesmeric Infirmary in 1849.

The Zoist Journal

After resigning from the University College Hospital, Professor John Elliotson continued to practice Mesmerism, still adamant of its medical benefits. In 1843, he founded, edited, and wrote for his new journal, The Zoist.

The journal was published quarterly, and continued to publish research and theories on Mesmerism and phrenology. Through the journal, he also added the goal of “connecting and harmonising practical science with little understood laws governing the mental structure of man.”

Mesmerism was also represented favorably in another periodical which began at the same time, and was edited by Spencer T. Hall.

After a 13 year run, The Zoist ended in 1856. Despite this, Elliotson continued to publish articles relating to Mesmerism in the Medical Times and Gazette.

If you would like to read more about Professor John Elliotson, there’s a book “The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound” by Wendy Moore.