Franklin’s Forgotten Triumph: Scientific Testing

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Franklin was not up to traveling when the commission began its work, so the first meetings were held without him and without his thoughts about how such an evaluation should be undertaken. Since Mesmer himself could not practice medicine, the commissioners went to d’Eslon’s clinic, where they found a handsome dimly lit room in the center of which stood the wooden tub with its pulverized glass and iron filings. In place of Mesmer’s glass harmonica, a piano in the corner provided music. The patients were seated on chairs around the tub, linked together by cords and each holding the next person’s thumb. Long jointed iron rods projected from the tub; they could be touched to any part of a patient’s body. D’Eslon explained to the commissioners that the tub was the condenser and conductor of the animal magnetism. As they watched, he walked among the patients, touching one or another with a short iron rod and rubbing his hands over their bodies, particularly their lower abdomens.

The treatment went on for hours, and the tension in the room grew. Nervous coughs, hiccups, hysterical cries, sobs, and even convulsions were observed, and d’Eslon explained that they were signs that healing was taking place. Nothing was controlled, and the commissioners left with no sense of what might have taken place medically. After attending a number of such sessions, the commissioners, little more enlightened than when they’d begun, passed on their findings to Franklin.

He saw none of this as very useful. He might believe in reincarnation and practice meditation, but he never confused interest with evidence. What was called for, he realized, was some kind of impartial test, and since he could not go to them, he arranged for the other commissioners and d’Eslon to come to him. In late April and early May and at least once in June, they came out from Paris to gather at his residence in Passy.

Among his other accomplishments, Franklin seems to have been the first scientist to consider demographics. On the theory that class and culture might help explain what was happening, and to allow comparisons between populations, the first session at Passy involved only lower-class patients, whose presence Franklin seems to have arranged. They included an asthmatic widow, a woman with a swollen thigh, a tubercular six-year-old boy, a nine-year-old girl who suffered from St. Vitus’s Dance, a man blind in one eye from a tumor, a woman who had been thrown by a cow and never fully recovered, and a man whose reason for being included is not recorded. After several hours, four of the seven were not affected at all by d’Eslon’s treatments; the remaining three mainly experienced discomfort from having their sore spots pressed. No cures were achieved.

A few days later the commissioners arranged for four upper-class people to be treated: a Madame de Bory and a Monsieur Romagni, neither of whom had symptoms, or none listed, anyway; a Monsieur Moret, who had a tumor on his knee; and a Madame de V., who had some kind of nervous disorder. To this group were added Franklin, his grandsons, his secretary, an American officer, and a group of patients of d’Eslon.

De Bory and Romagni felt nothing, nor did Franklin, the grandchildren, or the American officer. Madame de V. almost fell asleep, although whether from hypnotism or treatment is unclear. D’Eslon’s patients were more responsive, which was not surprising. Franklin then suggested what became the first use of blindness and sham treatments in a scientific test.

The d’Eslon patients were literally blindfolded—which is why the protocol came to be known as “blind”—and the treatments continued. As Franklin had hoped, this was very revealing. The patients could not tell when they were being “magnetized” and often thought they were when they’weren’t, or vice versa.

During another session at Franklin’s house they went out into the garden. Mesmer maintained, and d’Eslon agreed, that any living thing could be magnetized, and d’Eslon offered (or more likely Franklin asked for) a demonstration. D’Eslon touched an apricot tree in the garden with his wand, supposedly magnetizing it, and said that afterward anyone who touched the tree would be affected. Franklin, once again, saw the matter not as a question of belief but of getting unbiased evidence.

On August 11 Franklin’s commission issued its unanimous report. Mesmerism was dead, and Mesmer soon left Paris.

D‘eslon was asked to stand several yards away from the tree. Then a 12-year-old boy was blindfolded and led out into the garden. He was taken to stand in front of four trees, three controls and the treated one. At the first tree the boy began to perspire and cough. At the second he said he felt pain in his head and tiredness in his body. At the third he said his headache was much worse and volunteered that he felt he was getting close to the magnetized tree. In fact he was moving away from it. At the fourth tree he fainted, requiring d’Eslon to revive him.

Franklin and the other members of the commission in attendance were satisfied that the experiments conducted at his house, under the conditions of blindness he had devised, had settled the question of whether animal magnetism was real. It was not.