The Mesmerist – Wendy Moore

September 10, 2017 at 12:09 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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A long while ago, I read Wendy Moore’s ‘The Knife Man’, and really enjoyed it. I didn’t review it on this blog, for some reason, but anyway, it’s a good book worth reading.

Remembering that book, I picked up Wendy Moore’s latest offering at the airport before a flight. It is a little similar – a medical history book. It tells the story of John Elliotson, a radical doctor working in London in the early Victorian era. Medicine was a pretty brutal business in the early 1800s, and Moore presents all the gore and terror very evocatively. Many medical procedures were basically useless, and there was little in the way of scientific examination or reflection about the causes and treatment of disease.

Elliotson was one of a new breed of doctors who was more scientifically minded. He was at the forefront of a number of medical breakthroughs, including the use of the stethoscope and using quinine to treat malaria. He also became very interested in ‘Mesmerism’ – better known today as hypnotism. Initially as a way of offering both pain relief in operations and also treatment for nervous conditions, although as his research progressed he become increasingly obsessed with the more fringe elements of mesmerism, such as clairvoyance.

As Elliotson become increasingly obsessive, carrying more and more outlandish demonstrations of mesmerism, the medical establishment become split about the value of mesmerism, and whether it was a genuine phenomenon or merely trickery and quackery. This triggered huge infighting and recriminations across hospitals and the newly emerging medical journals such as The Lancet.

At times the pace of this book flags – Moore sometimes spends too much time on descriptions of all the demonstrations of mesmerism, so the book reads in part more like a set of case descriptions. But mostly this is an easy ┬áread (if not for the squeamish!), painting a vivid picture of the state of medicine at the time, and how new ideas were both embraced and rejected. This ability to make serious historical scholarship accessible and ‘novelistic’ is Wendy Moore’s great strength. A fascinating book.

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