MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Frontispiece of Pamphlet on Mesmerism

Traces du Magnétisme, 1784



Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) believed, or pretended to believe, that a universal force similar to gravity or electricity could be transmitted through him to both living and inanimate objects and that human ailments could be cured through this process, which he called “animal magnetism.” He amassed a sizable fortune through his influence over a gullible public, including such luminaries as the Marquis de Lafayette and Madame Du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV of France, who paid 100 louis for a single treatment. In her memoirs, Du Barry remembered the 1780s mesmerism craze: “[T]he passion for magnetism swept away all attempts to measure its proceedings by the dictates of reason.” The king appointed two commissions of scientific men to investigate the efficacy of magnetic cures, and these investigators ruled against Mesmer. A pamphleteering war immediately erupted, with myriad short publications arguing pros and cons of the treatments. The illustration seen here served as a frontispiece to one such pamphlet (Traces du Magnétisme, by Jacques Cambry, published in Paris in 1784), part of the Vail Library, which is now in the MIT Libraries’ Rare Book Collection.

The Vail Library of books about electricity and related subjects came to MIT in 1912, the gift of Theodore N. Vail, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and a member of the MIT Corporation. The core of the Vail collection had originally been purchased in England by George Edward Dering, a railroad tycoon and inventor, who purchased the titles (more than 30,000) over the course of forty years by leaving standing orders with book dealers, instructing them to send him every publication they could find that related to electricity or electrical engineering. Vail bought the collection after Dering’s death in 1911. The collection contains many titles about hypnotism, mesmerism, and animal magnetism as well as standard works on electricity.

MIT’s rare books on science, engineering, ballooning, mesmerism, glassmaking, and other topics are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Object of the Month: October 2004

MIT Libraries