Mesmerized

Alison Winter, Author, Winter, Author
Alison Winter, Author, Winter, Author University of Chicago Press $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-226-90219-7
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 12/01/1998
Winter, an associate professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, delivers an accessible account of one of the most overlooked episodes in the history of medicine and popular culture. Equal parts cultural study and history of science, Winter's book uses mesmerism--the practice of using suggestion and ""magnetic fields"" to induce trancelike states--as a window onto the development of experimental science in 19th-century Britain. With a healthy pragmatism, Winter dismisses as uninteresting the question of the objective reality of mesmeric phenomena. Instead, she concentrates on the social and intellectual conditions that made it possible for many respectable Victorians (among them, Carlyle, Dickens and Harriet Martineau) to believe in the unlikely technique named after the Prussian charlatan Franz Anton Mesmer. Winter skillfully dissects the heated ideological debates over mesmerism between the medical faculties of progressive University College and traditional King's College. Similarly keen is her critical examination of class and gender in early mesmeric experiments, staged events that typically used destitute women as guinea pigs. Most impressive, though, is a marvelous chapter on the relationship between mesmerism and British imperialism, in which Winter shows how the British used ""animal magnetism"" to confirm their prejudices toward the subject Indian population. Winter combines a flair for storytelling with a scrupulous attention to historical evidence, offering a history at once intellectually satisfying and, well, mesmerizing. Illustrations. (Dec.)
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