HHH column: Scientific expertise under pressure by Chloé Conickx

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by another member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution here. This month, the floor is for Chloé Conickx, PhD candidate at Ghent University.

The covid-19 pandemic and 18th century mesmerism: scientific expertise under pressure

Chloé Conickx

Not too long ago, I received the calls for papers for two conferences in my mailbox. On the one hand, the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS) 2022 conference on “Science policy and politics of science”, and on the other hand the Gewina Woudschoten 2022 conference on “Contested expertise: Trust in science and technology”. As I read the thematic scopes of these conferences in my covid-proof, coffee-scented home office, I immediately noticed the similarities. Both testified to the great renewal of interest in issues of trust and the shifting legitimacy and reliability of scientific expertise in policymaking – sparked by the covid-19 pandemic, which both of them mentioned explicitly.

I submitted two proposals, both dealing with the battles for legitimacy, credibility, and reliability, which my research (much to my delight) offers plenty of material for. I’d even say that the current public debate and the renewed historiographical focus on the role of scientific expertise in relation to state and public, has helped me to position and explain my project more confidently in terms of its societal relevance.

Allow me to elaborate.

My research deals with late 18th-century mesmerism or ‘animal magnetism’, a very peculiar medical therapy that became a cultural phenomenon in Enlightenment Paris. The Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) claimed to have discovered an imponderable, universal magnetic fluid that connected all bodies (celestial and human alike) in a reciprocal, harmonious way. Disease was symptomatic for a disturbed circulation of the fluid, which needed to be restored back to health by the physician-magnetizer by means of magnetic pulses. In 1778, Mesmer arrived in Paris, where his therapy became extremely popular. People packed in front of his magnetic clinic, desperate to receive the treatment that could cure them from diseases that ordinary medicine could not.

However, mesmerism was also met with distrust and scepticism, particularly from the medical and scientific institutions like the Société Royale de Médecine, the Académie des Sciences and the medical faculty. In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed two royal commissions to investigate the reality and efficacy of magnetism. Their reports completely destroyed the legitimacy of mesmeric claims: the presumed magnetic fluid was not real, the therapy was based on deception, the effects were explained as the result of ‘known causes’ like the imagination. Conclusion: animal magnetism posed a dangerous threat to individual health and the social order.

Engraving of doctor Mesmer magnetizing his patient. Source: Ebenezer Sibley, Une clef pour la médecine et les sciences occultes, 1794.

Issue settled, one would think – ‘true’ (institutional) science prevailed. But the situation was much more complex: the publication of these reports detonated into an intense debate about the legitimacy and reliability of medical experts, both mesmeric and institutional. Questions were raised regarding the expertise of the commissioners – how could they test something they did not know anything about? Several commentators contested the commissioners’ descriptions of the magnetic treatment and argued that they had ‘made’ magnetic seances suspect this way. Moreover, these critics all provided corresponding ‘correct’ descriptions of how and where the treatment took place. Who could the public believe? Who was reliable? What or who made magnetism legitimate? The public debate made clear that ‘institutions’ was not the self-evident authority to resolve these questions. Several actors were sitting at the negotiation table to determine what made knowledge legitimate and reliable. This is my project’s focus: the reconstruction of this process of contestation, re-definition, re-conceptualization and re-shaping of legitimate (scientific/medical) practices.

Of course, ‘the making of science’ is not new to historians of science and medicine, particularly those working on marginalized practices. Yet, the current debate and the pressure on science and policy-making caused by the pandemic, has given me a specific, tangible and modern-day lead to explain my research to non-academic friends, family, acquaintances. It has allowed me to turn their perception of mesmerism from an “odd, weird, ‘alternative’ medicine” into a relevant historical example of how scientific expertise is not a self-evident and universal given, but rather a complex and dynamic construction.