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Philip Ball tells the story of Anton Mesmer and the rise and fall of animal magnetism.

Anton Mesmer's magnetic cures for nervous conditions were famous in Vienna and Paris in the 1780s. He figured that the currents of an invisible fluid in the patient's body were like movements of the fluid thought to cause the force of magnetism. And so he decided that he should use magnets to affect it.

Mesmer set up a clinic in his house in which patients came to dip their hands or feet, or even their whole bodies, into baths filled with what he called magnetized water, given healing powers by magnetized iron rods or plates immersed in them. His treatment was a performance as it involved music, gestures, and props, and his own forceful personality.

But in 1784 the suspicious French medical profession persuaded the King, Louis 16th, to launch an official investigation into Mesmer's methods. The inquiry found that his treatment was useless and possibly dangerous and should be stopped. Mesmer retreated to Austria and died in 1815.

This was one of the first occasions on which what we might now call parapsychology was put under scientific scrutiny.

Philip Ball tells the story of Mesmer and the rise and fall of animal magnetism. He talks to Simon Shaffer, Professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University, about the role of spectacle in science and medicine in the late 18th century and to Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at Hertfordshire University, about the legacy of scientific scrutiny of the claims of parapsychology.

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28 minutes