Untold lives blog

25 January 2013

The ‘Apostle of Mesmerism in India’

Tonight’s performance of The Singing Hypnotist by Christopher Green will mark the culmination of his work as Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the British Library. To add to Christopher’s stories about hypnotists through the ages, including Annie de Montford (‘the most powerful mesmerist in the world’), I should like to offer Dr James Esdaile, the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle of Mesmerism in India’.

Hypnotic Session - man hypnotising a woman whilst a group of people look inHypnotic Session ©Lessing Archive/British Library Board Images Online

In September 1846 ten Indian male patients were taken from the wards of the Native Hospital in Calcutta. They were placed in a house in the hospital grounds to act as guinea pigs in an experiment to determine whether mesmerism could be used successfully to achieve painless surgery.  The men were aged 18-40 years, both Hindu and Muslim:  Cheedam, Bissonath, Nilmoney, Neechul, Deeloo, Jahiroodeen, Dohmun, Ramchund, Hyder Khan, Murali Doss.

Esdaile ‘declined to perform Mesmeric manipulations himself, on the ground of this being needless and detrimental to his health’. His mesmerizers were young men, Hindu and Muslim, aged 14-30, most of them compounders and dressers from the Hooghly Hospital: Munoorudeen, Nilmoney Doss, Tintamanee, Nuwab Jan, Nobin Doss, Ruhim Bux. A separate mesmerizer was assigned to each patient. They worked in silence in darkened rooms but members of the Committee appointed by the Government of Bengal to assess Esdaile’s work were able to view through small apertures made in the door panels. The patient lay on his back, with the mesmerizer sitting behind him at the head of the bed, leaning over so their faces were almost in contact. The mesmerizer passed his hands over the patient’s face, chiefly the eyes, breathing frequently and gently over the patient’s lips, eyes and nostrils. The process continued without interruption for at least two hours each day, but for as long as eight hours in one case.

The Committee reported that in seven cases the processes produced deep sleep.  It proved impossible to wake the patients with loud noises; light; burning with red hot cinders placed on the chest; pricking with a pin or the point of a knife or scapel; sticking a pin between the fingers or on the point of the nose; or pulling hairs from the chest.  It was different from sleep induced by narcotic drugs since the patient could be woken quickly with transverse passes, fanning, and blowing on the face and eyes. Seven surgical operations were performed without signs of pain whilst the patient was asleep. The patients were all unaware that an operation had taken place.

It was decided that the method warranted further investigation and Esdaile was put in charge of a small experimental hospital in Calcutta for one year. Again his work found favour. Esdaile was appointed Presidency Surgeon in 1848 and Marine Surgeon in 1850. However the East India Company’s support for mesmerism in hospitals fell away when ether was established as a quick and cheap alternative. Esdaile continued with mesmerism in private practice but returned to the UK in 1851.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records             

Further reading
IOR/V/26/850/11 Report of the committee appointed by Government to observe and report upon surgical operations by Dr. J. Esdaile, upon patients under the influence of alleged mesmeric agency (Calcutta, 1846)
James Esdaile, Mesmerism in India, and its practical application in surgery and medicine (London, 1846)
Waltraud Ernst, Esdaile, James (1808-1859) Oxford DNB



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