19 October 2017


Wendy Moore. The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017.

Today I think that most of us would think that science and surgery, spirituality and showbiz are clearly separate things but less than 200 years ago, in the late Georgian and early Victorian England things were much more mixed, up as these books show. We should be reminded of this by the use of the word 'theatre' to describe an operating room.🔻
Wendy Moore’s sympathetic but not uncritical biography of John Elliotson takes us back to the 'good old days' of holistic medicine, or what passed for medicine, dominated by the time-old doctrine of humours and the time-old practice of bloodletting as a cure for just about everything, a technique that more often or not made a bad situation worse. That was, however, better than being operated on without anaesthetic, antiseptics or antibiotics. If the shock of the operation didn’t kill you then there was a good chance that sepsis would. Speed was of the essence but that could lead to some nasty complications, such as when one of the characters in this book, Robert Liston, achieved a record time of sawing off a patient’s leg in two and half minutes. Such was his rush however that he also sawed off his assistant’s fingers and through the coat tails of a spectator. Sadly both the patient and the assistant died from infections and the spectator dropped dead from shock, a 300% mortality rate.

It was not surprising in these circumstances that ambitious young doctors would try anything to improve this dire situation and to rebel against the old dominant. Two of these radical reforming medics were John Elliotson (1791-1868) and Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), who started out as firm friends but ended as bitter enemies. The cause of the rift lay in the title of this book, Elliotson’s support for and use of mesmerism in general and in particular the antics of his star patient/pupil/turn Elizabeth Okey (1821-1871).

John Elliotson
The relationship between these two men and the role that Elizabeth played in its failure is the central story of this book. Elliotson in his endeavours to make medicine more modern and scientific had taken up with the new fads of the time, phrenology and mesmerism and had introduced the latter to both his original hospital, St Thomas’s and to the brand new University College Hospital, part of the equally new University College London. Unlike the old universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UCL was a radical institution, open to all regardless of religion and a place for new innovative ideas.

It was as a patient at UCH that Elizabeth Okey had been introduced to Elliotson. She was the daughter of a rather impoverished London goldsmith and had been having fits of some sort since a head injury at the age of 12. Times had not been good to her, from being the second eldest and the eldest daughter in a family of 9 to 11, a position that probably entailed quite some authority and responsibility, and alternating with periods of being fostered by an uncle who ran a bookshop, where she and her sister Jane were again the centre of attention, she had been reduced to the role of a housemaid.

Housemaids were among the lower ranks of servants and as such they were meant to be almost literally invisible, coming when called, speaking when spoken to. The naturally intelligent and ebullient Elizabeth was forced into the role of the quiet, demure servant girl who would sit and do her needlework.

Being admitted to hospital was probably a relief from this life of tedium. At first she was bled, blistered and given doses of not entirely pleasant medicines (if you weren’t ill before you went through this you certainly were afterwards). When this produced no results Elliotson had mesmerised by the resident mesmerist Baron Dupotet. After a while it seems to have occurred to Elizabeth that being mesmerised gave her the perfect excuse to release her hidden laddette, behaving like a music hall artiste, telling comic stories, doing impersonations and singing both straight and comic songs.

There lay the downfall of both Dupotet and eventually Elliotson, for in effect Elizabeth became a stage act, acting ever more uninhibited, with Dupotet’s encouragement she began to show wild talents, going round the hospital diagnosing other patients, claiming to foretell the future and so on. At this point Elliotson went on holiday, and with his patron out of the way Dupotet was given the boot for reducing the hospital to chaos. That might have ended the whole thing but Elliotson himself took over the mesmerism and the reign of Elizabeth, shortly joined by her sister Jane would continue and Elliotson would drift into almost being a professional showman.

Now Elizabeth was increasingly in charge, doing mesmerism herself, diagnosing patients, and making a claim that was to presage what was to come; the was being advised by a 'negro spirit'. He was to be then joined by a more sinister figure, one in a white robe which she saw by the beds of patients who were going to die, the later the figure the sooner the death. This new spirit she called Jack alias 'he Great Jackey. Elizabeth had already moved from servant to superstar now she was moving on to shaman.

However nemesis was at hand in the form of Elliotson’s old friend Thomas Wakley, founded of the radical campaigning medical journal The Lancet and the radical MP for Finsbury. One of Wakley’s campaigns was for the professionalisation of medicine, so the idea of an eminent doctor like Elliotson allowing an unlearned young woman to diagnoses illness was anathema. Elliotson played into his hands by claiming that mesmerism was based on an actual physical effect and that when Elizabeth and Janet were brought into contact with nickel over which mesmeric they underwent strong reactions but did not react at all to 'mesmerised' lead. Thus Wakley was able to perform a series of experiments that showed Elizabeth did not react to nickel unless she was told it was there, and reacted to neutral substances as if they were nickel when told they were. This convinced Wakley that the girls were frauds and that mesmerism was a load of nonsense. Both Elliotson and Wakley stuck to their own polarised views and ignored a third possibility, that 'mesmerism' was based on suggestion.

It was to be that approach that was to lead mesmerism to be rebranded as hypnotism and for its medical use, including for a time as an anaesthetic in surgery, before being side-lined by the rise of chemical anaesthetics such as ether and chloroform. Elizabeth and Jane were returned to their working class roots, much to their disgust, Elizabeth eventually dying of consumption as so many Victorians did.

Meanwhile mesmerism was being upstaged by a new fad; spiritualism, of which Elliotson was originally sceptical, before being converted by Daniel Home to both spiritualism and Christianity, both of which he took up with his usual zeal.

Times were changing and Elizabeth and Jane Okey were soon to be well and truly upstaged by two even younger sisters from America, the Fox sisters. – Peter Rogerson.

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