Back in the room – a new book uncovers the story of pioneering mesmerist John Elliotson
23 June, 2017 — By Peter Gruner
Dr John Elliotson
TODAY’S celebrity doctors have nothing on the theatricality of Victorian professor John Elliotson, who hypnotised patients and brought acclaim and derision in equal measure to University College Hospital.
Elliotson, who taught Charles Dickens to put people in a trance, features in a fascinating new book, The Mesmerist, by Wendy Moore.
The doctor was convinced that many illnesses were all in the mind and could be cured by auto suggestion.
What’s more, he was prepared to offer his “alternative” treatments free to the desperate and destitute residents of Camden Town, Somers Town and St Pancras.
As part of her research for the book, Wendy underwent hypnosis.
“I’d been suffering from headaches,” she said. “I was fairly sceptical but I thought I’d give it a go. I visited a hypnotherapist who was also a doctor. And do you know what? It really helped me. I felt more relaxed and I’ve had fewer headaches since. I’ve also learnt to hypnotise myself, which helps when I do get an ache.”
Her book is a detailed biography of Elliotson (1791-1868) whose place in medical history had almost been forgotten. Wendy, a former Ham & High journalist, describes early experiments with hypnotism – in Victorian times called mesmerism – a so-called cure for many illnesses including epilepsy.
Elliotson was criticised by some colleagues for his belief in the therapy, although today he has probably been vindicated.
Hypnotherapy, though not officially sanctioned by the NHS, is now a popular mainstream alternative to conventional medicine and boasts some success in healing a range of conditions.
Elliotson was supported, at least in the early days, by a new campaigning medical magazine called The Lancet. It was edited by Thomas Wakley, who was to become a radical independent MP for Finsbury.
They were to fall out later when Wakley joined the growing band of critics of Elliotson.
Mesmerism was named after a German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, who was also disillusioned with conventional therapies.
He had stumbled across a method of inducing a sleep-like trance through repetitive motions and suggestions.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was mesmerised several times in an effort to quell painful kidney stones and wrote a poem about it.
Elliotson became so obsessed that he even used mesmerism on his pet parrot. After a few strokes on its back the bird obediently fell asleep on its perch, writes Wendy.
But his main subjects were two teenage sisters – Elizabeth Okey, 17, and her sibling Jane, 15, who both apparently suffered from epilepsy. Their parents had taken them to UCH in a desperate attempt to find a cure. Elizabeth was suffering a fit every day, followed by a severe headache, and was no longer able to work as a housemaid.
Under hypnosis Elizabeth fell into a trance and began to perform strange antics, watched by hundreds of medical students and others interested in the subject. She talked, opened her eyes and behaved in an uninhibited way. Her personality completely changed. Normally shy and demure, Elizabeth flirted and joked and appeared not to feel electric shocks.
Charles Dickens, who lived in nearby Doughty Street, was a regular visitor to the hospital and was friends with Elliotson, who became the novelist’s family doctor.
Dickens not only believed that hypnotism worked but “would practise with noted success on his wife, sister-in-law and several friends, although he would always resist becoming a subject himself,” writes Wendy.
While not everyone agreed with Elliotson’s medical theories, nobody could deny his determination to establish a new hospital for the poor. In 1834 he helped found the North London hospital with 130 beds. Three years later it was renamed the UCH.
Soon to be Queen, Princess Victoria was among those who contributed to a fund organised by Elliotson to build the new hospital. “Ragged and filthy, ill-shod and barefoot, the inhabitants of north London flocked to the hospital’s doors,” writes Wendy. “Many of them were starving and destitute; all were poor and sick.”
Talking about why she chose the subject, Wendy said: “I was fascinated by the story of the two teenage girls, the Okey sisters, who became Elliotson’s prize patients and performed bizarre antics under mesmerism in the lecture theatre at UCH. I was intrigued as to whether they were fakes or genuine. Were they clever actors who enjoyed being teenage celebrities – just like young contestants on the X Factor today – or really acting under the influence of hypnotism?”
• The Mesmerist (The Society Doctor who held Victorian London Spellbound). By Wendy Moore, Orion, £18.99