History of Hypnosis

As early as 1500BC, the Ebers Papyrus recorded a treatment in which a physician, while uttering strange chanting’s, merely laid his hands on the head or body of the patient and these chanting’s affected a cure in the afflicted person.

The Egyptians continued to practice healing, and word of their success eventually spread far and wide throughout the adjoining lands, as far away as England and Asia Minor. As a symbol and physical evidence of their beliefs, the Egyptians built various temples in which the priests practiced their “suggestions,” “rituals,” and “cures” in the treatment of those afflicted and suffering.

Franz Anton Mesmer was born on May 23, 1734, in Austria and received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1766.  Mesmer became acquainted with the theories of hypnotism and incorporated his knowledge into his medical practice, attempting to cure his patients’ symptoms and difficulties.  However, his lack of experience in hypnotism and his inability to gain additional knowledge of the art led him to consider the phenomenon of hypnotism as having its origin in some magnetic field.

Sometime around 1777, Mesmer treated a blind pianist, Maria Teresa Paradis, and following his treatments, her sight was restored. All previous attempts by other physicians had failed.  Mesmer’s success continued to grow until 1784 when, after lengthy investigation, his animal magnetism was labeled a fraud.  Following this, Mesmer moved to Switzerland where he died in 1815. The terms “mesmerised” and “mesmerism” evolved from his name.

Dr. James Braid, an English physician, became interested in hypnotism somewhere around 1841 when he attended a lecture given by a Frenchman named LaFontaine, who demonstrated some of Mesmer’s techniques.  Following this demonstration, Dr. Braid began a detailed study of hypnotism and in the process developed several of his own induction techniques.

For several years, Dr. Braid conducted various experiments with his patients.  He subsequently renamed mesmerism “hypnotism” after the Greek word hypnos, meaning “sleep.”  Later, Dr. Braid realised that hypnotism was not a form of sleep but a deep state of concentration of the mind.  He tried to rename hypnosis, but the word was so entrenched that he eventually abandoned his efforts to affect a change.  Consequently, the name remains today, giving the general public the false impression that the subject is in a deep sleep.

One of the least known practitioners and one who probably contributed the most to medical hypnosis is Dr. James Esdaile.  Dr. Esdaile, like Dr. Braid, an English physician, studied medicine in Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1830.  Sometime later, he obtained a position with the East India Company and set up a practice in Calcutta, India, where he remained most of his life.  He was a man of extreme medical intelligence and probably performed more surgical operations with the use of hypnosis as an anaesthetic than any other surgeon up to the present time.  By the end of 1845, he had more than a hundred major operations to his credit with the use of hypnosis.  After receiving many favourable reports on his medical endeavours, the governor of India placed Dr. Esdaile in charge of a small hospital outside Calcutta, where he could continue his experimental operations with the use of hypnosis.  By the end of his first year at that hospital, he had more than 135 major operations to his credit.  As is to be expected, he was criticised by some of his colleagues.  In spite of these criticisms, his fame continued to spread and by the time he left India, he had performed thousands of operations with the use of hypnosis.  In the years following his departure from India, Dr. Esdaile wrote articles criticising the medical profession for not accepting hypnosis as a real medical tool.  He finally took his case to the general public to convince them of the true benefits in the field of medical cures for such ailments as palsy, sciatica, lumbago, convulsions, and other serious symptomatic problems.  His greatest contribution was in promoting the value of hypnosis in creating anaesthesia and analgesia.

Dr. A. A. Liebault received his medical degree in 1850 and continued to maintain a country practice that kept him quite busy.  His practice in hypnotism was gratuitous and because of this, he gained the respect of the patients and others who knew him.  He had started to experiment with the use of hypnosis at an early age and quite some time before he earned his medical degree.  He continued his studies after his graduation, keeping a close record of his results.  It wasn’t long thereafter that he conceived the idea that all of the phenomenon of hypnosis was subjective in origin.  Dr. Liebault was the first physician to conclude this and wrote a book on hypnotism which took him two years to publish.  This book contained detailed information on his hypnotic therapeutic sessions and the fascinating results.

Dr. Eugene Azam was on the faculty of medicine at Bordeaux as a correspondent for the Academy of Medicine in Paris.  Dr. Azain’s contribution to the advancement of hypnosis is in his discovery of the splitting of the conscious.  It was he who made medical practitioners aware of two levels of awareness.  These two levels of awareness are now referred to as the conscious and unconscious.  He endeavoured to attribute the phenomena of hypnosis to the psychiatric influence of suggestion rather than the influence of magnetism as had been so popular with previous practitioners.

Probably one of the most noted doctors to be influenced by the field of hypnotism was Dr. Sigmund Freud.  Dr. Freud studied hypnotism with Dr. Hippolite Berhmeim and Dr. Jean Martin Charcot.  It was Dr. Charcot’s belief that in order to be hypnotised, one must be of weak mind.  This fallacy even persists today, even though there have been so many books written on the subject.  Dr. Charcot further influenced Dr. Freud because he persisted in maintaining the position that hypnosis was a sign of weakness and of a nervous disposition.  Dr. Freud eventually abandoned hypnosis because he was embarrassed by the lack of his ability to obtain a deep state of hypnosis in his patients and because the cures he was able to obtain were only temporary, since his posthypnotic suggestions could not be maintained.

In 1955, the British Medical Association gave its unqualified approval of hypnosis, following that with the instructions to the Council on Medical Health to investigate the value of hypnosis in medicine.  At the June 1958 meeting of the American Medical Association, hypnosis was approved as a medical tool without a dissenting vote.

During the past thirty years or more, many physicians, dentists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and non-licensed persons have taken up the cause of hypnosis, thereby educating the general public as to its therapeutic values and benefits.

Credit for continuous contributions in the use of hypnosis should be given to such professionals as Dr. Lewis R. Wolberg; Dr. William J. Bryan, Jr.; Dr. S. J. Van Pelt, Dr. Milton H. Erickson; and others. However, we should not take lightly the valuable contributions of such non professionals as Leslie M. LeCron, Harry Arons, Edward Barons, and Dave Elman, just to name a few.