HHH column: A Belgian priest visiting Charcot in Paris by Kaat Wils

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Kaat Wils, professor at KU Leuven and senior fellow at the Vossius Centre for the History of Humanities and Sciences. Currently, she is working on a monograph on the therapeutic use of hypnosis in nineteenth-century Belgium. In this column, she relates the issue that hypnosis posed for the question of free will, and how a Belgian priest, Désiré Mercier, reconciled hypnosis, free will, and moral sense.

Kaat Wils

A Belgian priest visiting Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris

In the spring of 1887, 36-year-old priest Désiré Mercier, the future archbishop of Belgium, organized a research stay in Paris to visit Jean-Martin Charcot, the famous hysteria expert. A lecturer in Thomistic philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven, Mercier brooded on plans to establish a philosophical institute that would integrate the modern sciences, including psychology and psychiatry. Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous research on hysteria and hypnosis hence aroused his interest. At the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot had trained some female psychiatric patients to become professional hysterics. During his public classes, they performed (for an exclusively male, academic audience) the various stages of hysteria in their induced, hypnotic form.

Désiré Mercier’s notes of Jean-Martin Charcot’s lessons in the spring of 1887. Louvain-la-Neuve, Archives de l’UC Louvain. Fonds Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

A year after the Paris visit, Mercier started to teach psychology in Leuven. He included the topic of hypnosis when treating the theme of free will, a sensitive scholarly topic in times of alleged scientific materialism and determinism. That hypnotized persons during or immediately after their hypnotic sleep passively obeyed the suggestions of others, Mercier stated, seemed to testify to the fact that the will was subject to anatomical and physiological conditions. Mercier hastened to add that evidence that the human soul was not merely pure spirit did not mean that the soul was incapable of spiritual and free acts. In the following years, Mercier discovered that the phenomenon of hypnosis was far less threatening to free will than he had originally thought. In addition to the work of Charcot, he explored the work of the hypnosis school of Nancy. There, physicians like Hippolyte Bernheim approached hypnosis not as an experimentally inducible symptom of a pathological state of mind as Charcot did, but as a sleep-related state of heightened suggestibility that could be induced in most people and used therapeutically. In subsequent editions of his psychology textbook, Mercier developed in much greater detail the subject of hypnosis and suggestion and their reconcilability with free will.

The latter theme was also the subject of heated international debate. Since the late 1880s, particularly within the Nancy school, the conviction had arisen that some people were so susceptible to suggestion that they could be led to commit criminal acts (alongside the danger of being raped under hypnosis). It was a belief that seemed partly in keeping with the determinist tenets of positivist criminology. Indeed, radical medical criminologists such as Cesare Lombroso argued that some people were biologically determined to commit crimes. When in 1897 the First International Congress of Neurology, Psychiatry, Medical Electricity and Hypnology was held in Brussels, the debate on criminal suggestion continued. The Nancy jurist Jules Liégeois came to Brussels to underline its dangers, citing numerous experiments that had been carried out in Nancy.

A minority of hypnosis researchers did however not share this view and referred to the fact that subjects were aware of the artificial and therefore harmless nature of laboratory experiments: they played the role that was expected of them within the experimental setting. British physician J. Milne Bramwell was one of them. At the Brussels conference, he referred to his experiments with patients and the research of (the by then deceased) Belgian scholar Joseph Delboeuf. Mercier also spoke out in favor of the position of Delboeuf and Bramwell at the conference. In support of his argument, Mercier referred to an experiment in which he had participated during his stay in Paris. A hypnotized subject had been instructed to steal the gloves from Mercier’s coat but had refused to do so. This changed only when the instructing physician added that the gloves were his stolen ones. Mercier concluded: “Obviously, the person had shown not unconsciousness and automatism, but a very clear moral sense and a very firm deliberation”. The claim that hypnotized people, as passive automatons, carried out orders from hypnotists had to be dismissed as invalid.

With his position on the reconcilability of hypnosis, free will, and moral sense, Mercier demonstrated a strong, autonomous spirit. Unlike many contemporaries and Catholic colleagues such as the Louvain physician Ernest Masoin or the Jesuit Auguste Castelein, he did not allow himself to be seduced by a moralizing discourse about hypnosis as a cultural and moral danger – a discourse that had inspired the Belgian law of 1892 that banned hypnosis performances and granted a quasi-monopoly to physicians in its practice. It was a position that also was at odds with Charcot’s pathological interpretation of hypnosis that he had witnessed during his stay in Paris.

André Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière, 1887. The painting shows Charcot giving a clinical demonstration to a group of postgraduate students.

Are you a member of HHH and are you interested in writing a column on a topic of your choice? E-mail us at chiara.lacroix@gmail.com.