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'To Give Birth Without Pain!'
The First Cases of Mesmeric Pain Relief for Obstetrics

By Patrick P. Sim, Librarian
Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology

"The body's numb state during magnetic sleep gave me the idea of magnetizing a pregnant woman sometime before delivery and of having her give birth while asleep. This would be a good thing if it were possible, which I am not far from believing. To give birth without pain!! Imagine such a discovery. Unfortunately, Genesis doesn't want this."

-Dr. Grubert, Lyons, France, April 19, 1836*

 

In 1836, French physician/mesmerist Dr. Grubert of Lyons wrote to his colleague, Henri Chapelain, suggesting the induction of magnetic sleep on the parturient to provide pain relief in labor. The suggestion was made more than a decade before the introduction of chemical anesthesia and almost 11 years before James Young Simpson introduced obstetric anesthesia. Grubert was confident that mesmeric pain relief for obstetrics would be effective and good for both parturient and the newborn, but he felt society was not ready for its introduction. Victorian Europe did not advocate pain relief in labor.

Mesmerism had always been very closely associated with pain relief before the introduction of chemical anesthesia. This was evident in an era when possible pain relief might only be affected by influencing the patient's mind and when surgical expertise was measured by the speed of an operation. It took British surgeon Robert Liston only 25 seconds to amputate an ailing limb of his patient's during the historic first case of surgical anesthesia in Europe. The efficacy of ether anesthesia was so overwhelming to the surgeon that Liston stammered in his proclamation, "This Yankee dodge, gentlemen, beats mesmerism hollow!"1 This utterance reveals that mesmerism had been actively tried in pain relief before 1846. Dr. Grubert's statement confirms that it had also been seriously considered for the relief of obstetric pain a decade earlier, in 1836.

The episode about Eve's disobedience in Genesis had hitherto been often quoted to retard the movement of obstetric pain relief. Dr. Grubert could have been accorded the honor of being the first to apply mesmerism for obstetric pain relief, were he not hampered by prevalent Victorian attitude on the subject. Subsequently, two successful cases of mesmeric pain relief for obstetrics were reported since Grubert's prophetic proclamation; the cases took place in 1844 and 1846.

Manchester mesmerist J.P. Lynell induced a 22-year-old Irish woman to mesmeric sleep during labor when she delivered her first child at the Manchester Lying-in Hospital on January 25, 1844, and he reported it on February 23, 1844. The attending surgeon, Dr. Whitehead, verified Lynell's report. Mesmeric sleep was induced about a week before delivery, primarily for therapeutic pain relief and restful sleep during labor. The patient was induced to a sleep-waking state and brought back to wakeful state occasionally to anticipate delivery. After her safe and painless delivery of a healthy child, she was again mesmerized for comfortable recovery.2

Two years after the case in Manchester, American physician Dr. William Baker Fahnestock of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, induced mesmeric trance on his patient, Mrs. Susan Herr of Lampeter township in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for painless delivery of a male baby on March 5, 1846, almost a year before Sir James' experience and more than six months before the introduction of surgical anesthesia.3

Fahnestock's case report had originally been submitted for publication to the New York Journal of Medicine, but was forwarded by its editor to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal to expedite dissemination.4 His method of mesmeric anesthesia was quite distinct from the prevalent practice of the art. First of all, for Fahnestock, the terms mesmerism, animal magnetism and somnambulism were used interchangeably. His theory departed from traditional mesmerism in which he believed that the mesmeric subject, in this case the patient, retains control to be in a trance or somnambulistic state and is free from the absolute influence of his/her operator, the mesmerist.

Dr. Fahnestock differentiated somnambulism in natural and artificial states, and he advocated the former. Accordingly, under natural somnambulistic state, the operator is able to induce his subject to a state of somnus a voluntate, or "statuvolism," meaning a state produced by the subject's own will, free from the command of the mesmerist. He published his theory in the Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal on October 16, 1843, exactly three years before Morton's public demonstration of chemical anesthesia.5

The case of Mrs. Herr's obstetric delivery to rid labor pain under mesmeric influence was neither the first for Fahnestock's patient, nor was it the first of his patients. It was Susan's third delivery, and she was Fahnestock's eighth obstetric patient.3 Fahnestock tried mesmeric anesthesia in labor in his search for therapeutic means to relieve labor pain and the debilitating consequences caused by it. Previously, he had attended to Mrs. Herr's two earlier deliveries in which the parturient had suffered protracted difficult labors. She lost her eyesight and became totally immobile in her lower extremities as a consequence of severe labor pain.

Dr. Fahnestock resorted to mesmerism by inducing his patient to a somnambulistic trance in search for a cure. To his surprise, under mesmerism, his patient regained her eyesight and lower body movement in total recovery. The practice of inducing mesmeric trance became so natural to Mrs. Herr that her doctor found it an effective modality again at her fourth labor. She was suffering from severe labor pain on March 5, 1846, which occurred intermittently at intervals of 15-20 minutes. Fahnestock induced her into somnambulistic state in a matter of seconds, and for two hours, the parturient experienced regular contractions of the uterus without pain. As delivery approached, the patient threw herself back and forth, at will, in a mesmeric state until she delivered a large male baby.

Throughout his practice, Fahnestock observed that mesmeric obstetric pain relief is beneficial to the parturient in many ways, pain relief being the most important. It conserves the patient's strength which would otherwise be spent during labor. Upon waking, the patient will experience no soreness or debility, and full recovery is always faster to attain than in cases under any other circumstances. Furthermore, a pain-free patient during labor is always assured better health later in life than those who have struggled through labor pain.3

Reaction to Fahnestock's report was scathingly negative. It was considered "sublimated humbug," "absurd" and "contemptible folly." It was criticized as being a "divorce of science from common sense." Even the editor of the New York Journal of Medicine, who had forwarded Fahnestock's report for early publication, could not escape reproach. He was labeled a "sycophant" of Fahnestock's by willingly serving as the conduit to this hoax. The negative sentiment ran so deep that the critic admonished the editor of the journal for allowing its publication to deface the pages of a highly respected medical journal.

With all of the harsh comments, the critic faulted mesmerism and its advocates for their assumption that metaphysical causes could bring forth desired physical effects. To the scientific mind, such an assumption was both absurd and fraudulent. It argued that to suspend the vital aspects of life at will was absolutely impossible. Furthermore, abiding by the mainstream Victorian credo, pain and sorrow were adherent to childbirth. Defeating such elements in obstetrics was simply a mystery espoused by mesmerists. Attempts for pain relief were not only unimaginable, but blasphemous.6

Who, then, were these individuals who espoused and practiced mesmerism to relieve obstetric pain? Grubert was the product of French mesmerism directly descended from Anton Mesmer. Englishman Lynell was not a physician. Fahnestock was apparently an American physician of the Renaissance tradition. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Fahnestock was born in 1804 to a physician family. He received his medical degree in 1825 from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Lancaster to practice medicine with his father.

Fahnestock's interest in mesmerism began in 1833 when he witnessed mesmeric experiments and began to investigate the phenomenon himself. By 1843, he developed his theory of "Statuvolism," meaning a state produced by the will, which explains the freedom of a mesmerized subject in inducing mesmeric trances independent of the mesmerist. By 1869, he elaborated his theory and practice in a book titled Artificial Somnambulism. In the mid-1850s, he extended his interest to homeopathy and practiced it with great success.7

Fahnestock's inquisitive mind brought him to investigate the new art of photography in the early 1840s, soon after Frenchman Louis J. M. Daguerre had made public his photographic process to produce "sun pictures" in Paris in 1839. With the cooperation of his engineer friend, Fahnestock devised his own equipment, the equivalent of a camera, with lenses he personally ground, and successfully produced the first sun pictures popularly known as "daguerreotypes" in his native Pennsylvania. He was also active in his own professional organization, being a founder of the Lancaster City and County Medical Society in 1844. In the twilight years of his life, due to failing health, he moved to South Carolina where he died in 1886.8

Attempts to relieve labor pain have been recorded since antiquity in many civilizations, and the effective care of the parturient has long been considered an accurate gauge in measuring the advancement of any civilization. The forms of therapy for labor pain were invariably pharmacological and psychological.9 Despite the faithful adherence of the mesmerists to the practiced principles of animal magnetism, mesmeric pain relief in obstetrics apparently was always psychological. In both cases described, mesmerism was applied as a therapy to cure illness resulting from excruciating pain. Both Lynell and Fahnestock were successful in achieving the goals they had set.

The formal introduction of obstetric anesthesia had to be deferred, however, until the discovery of chemical anesthesia. Sir James Young Simpson's expertise and personality, among other factors, hastened its acceptance.

References:

  1. Cock FW. The first major operation under ether in Europe. Am J Surg (Anesth Suppl). 1915; 29:98-105.
  2. Lynell JP. Labour in Mesmeric State. ZOIST II , 1844; (5):120-123.
  3. Fahnestock WB. Artificial somnambulism in Pennsylvania. Boston Med Surg J. October 1846; 35(10):194-203.
  4. Lee CA. Artificial somnambulism in Pennsylvania. Boston Med Surg J. October 1846; 35(10):194.
  5. Fahnestock WB. Artificial Somnambulism. Philadelphia: Barclay; 1869:75-80.
  6. [Anon.] To the editor from an old subscriber. Boston Med Surg J. October 21, 1846; 35(12):240-241.
  7. Biographical Cyclopaedia of Homeopathic Physicians and Surgeons. Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishers; 1873:260-261.
  8. Heisey ML. The art of photography in Lancaster. In: Papers of the Lancaster County Historical Society. 1947; 60(4):93-97.
  9. Schaer HM. History of Pain Relief During Parturition. In: Obstetric Analgesia and Anesthesia. Marx GF, Bassell GM. eds. New York: Excerpta Medica; 1980:1-19.

* Scheff R., trans. Henri Chapelain Archives. [English translation of the Chapelain archives from original documents in French.] Wood Library-Museum Archives Collection; [1988]:176-177.


Patrick P. Sim, M.L.S., has served as Librarian of the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology for 26 years.
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