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Early History

Magnetic Jewelry Clasp

For thousands of years, wonder and magic were associated with the mysterious forces exerted by natural magnets -- magnetite-rich rocks, today called lodestones. Many trace magnetic therapy back to Paracelsus (1493-1543), a physician and alchemist who reasoned that since magnets have the power to attract iron, perhaps they can also attract diseases and leach them from the body. Charles Mackay, in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), says of Paracelsus that "his claim to be the first of the magnetisers can scarcely be challenged." But Paracelsus was also aware of the important role of the patient's mind in the process of healing (Buranelli 1975). He wrote, "The spirit is the master, the imagination is the instrument, the body is the plastic material. The moral atmosphere surrounding the patient can have a strong influence on the course of the disease. It is not the curse or the blessing that works, but the idea. The imagination produces the effect." Paracelsus was apparently well aware of the placebo effect.

The development in eighteenth-century England of carbon-steel permanent magnets more powerful than lodestones brought renewed interest in the possible healing powers of magnets, and among those interested was Maximilian Hell, a professor of astronomy at the University of Vienna. Hell claimed several cures using steel magnets, but he was rapidly eclipsed by a friend who borrowed his magnets to treat a young woman suffering from a severe mental illness. The friend was Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), and Mesmer's success with the "magnets from Hell" led directly to his widespread promotion of his theory of "animal magnetism." Although he first used actual magnets, he later found he could "magnetize" virtually anything -- paper, wood, leather, water -- and produce the same effect on patients. He concluded that the animal magnetism resided in himself, the various materials simply aiding the flow of the "universal fluid" between him and the patients.

Mesmer became so successful in Paris that in 1784 King Louis XVI established a Royal Commission to evaluate the claims of animal magnetism, a commission that included Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin among its members. They conducted a series of experiments and concluded that all the observed effects could be attributed to the power of suggestion, and that "the practice of magnetization is the art of increasing the imagination by degrees." Thomas Jefferson, arriving in Paris soon after the Commission report, noted in his journal: "Animal magnetism is dead, ridiculed."

Ridiculed, perhaps, but not dead. Mesmer himself faded from public view, but "magnetizing" persisted in various forms. Many early magnetizers evolved into students of hypnosis and developed various forms of hypnotherapy. (The trance induced in many of Mesmer's patients is thought to be what is now called a hypnotic trance, and most dictionaries today list mesmerism as a synonym for hypnotism.) One American who became interested in magnetic healing was Daniel David Palmer, who opened Palmer's School of Magnetic Cure in Iowa in the 1890s. His ideas developed into the system of hands-on therapy known as chiropractic. Others focused on hand gestures without actual touch, an approach recently reborn as "therapeutic touch." [See "Catching Up With Eighteenth Century Science in the Evaluation of Therapeutic Touch, " by Thomas S. Ball and Dean D. Alexander, this issue, p. 31] Mary Baker Eddy was "cured" by a magnetizer, but she later became convinced that cures could best be achieved through prayer, and founded Christian Science.

Most of these byproducts of mesmerism, like Mesmer himself, ceased to use actual magnets. But the development of electrical technology in the late nineteenth century impressed the general public with the mysterious powers of electric and magnetic fields, and therapeutic magnets had a rebirth, with many "doctors" promoting magnets to relieve pain, enhance sleep, and cure a wide variety of diseases. The most notable of these was Dr. C. J. Thacher, whom Collier's Magazine dubbed "King of the magnetic quacks" (Macklis 1993). His 1886 mail-order catalogue offered a variety of magnetic garments, and a complete costume contained more than 700 magnets, which provided "full and complete protection of all the vital organs of the body."

In the twentieth century, materials scientists and engineers have developed stronger and stronger permanent magnets -- alnico magnets in the 1930s, ferrite (ceramic) magnets in the 1950s, and rare-earth magnets in the 1970s and 1980s. The latest rare-earth magnets, neodymium-iron-boron, are more than a hundred times more powerful than the steel magnets available in the last century to Edison, Bell, and C. J. Thacher (Livingston 1996). Both ferrite magnets and the latest "neo" magnets have had a tremendous impact on modern technology, but they have also restimulated interest in the use of permanent magnets for magnetic therapy. Most magnetic therapy products today, like most refrigerator magnets, contain inexpensive ferrite magnets, but many suppliers offer neodymium "supermagnets" in their top-of-the-line products.