History of hypnosis 

Chaplain Paul G. Durbin, Ph.D.

As we begin our study of hypnosis, let us examine its history. The first recorded use of hypnosis is found in the book of Genesis 2:21-22 (ASV) "So the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which God took from the man He made into woman and brought her to the man." In this incident God used hypnosis as an anesthesia so that Adam felt no pain during the removal of his rib. Since that time, hypnosis has been used in almost every age and culture under a variety of names.

AcropolisIn addition to the references in Genesis, mention of hypnotic technique is found in other ancient sources concerning Egyptian "Sleep Temples," The "Sleep Temples" are described in the Ebers Papyrus which are over three thousand years old. In the temple, the Egyptian priests used a hypnotic-like procedure to improve health. While the subjects were in the hypnotic state, suggestions for healing and health were given by the priest. The temple became so popular and successful that they spread to Greece and throughout Asia Minor. [Richard Morton, Hypnosis and Pastoral Counseling, Los Angeles, 1980, p11]

Chaplain W. Leo Peacock gives a number of New Testament illustrations of hypnosis in his paper "Religious Hypnosis and Personal Control." He mentions that there are two words used for sleep in the New Testament. They are "Katheud" and "Koimoni". The latter is transliterated with the sound "hypnos" and translated as "sleep" or "restful sleep". Chaplain Peacock makes a point with his interpretation of Matthew's account of Joseph's dream concerning taking Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:20-25).

When Joseph discovered that Mary was expecting a child, he decided to break his engagement for he knew that the child was not his. The story told of an 'angel' or 'messenger' coming to Joseph in a dream. In this dream, the angel told Joseph to marry Mary. Upon wakening, Joseph did as the angel suggested.

Peacock writes that this is a clear description of an individual being hypnotized, and while under hypnosis being given a post-hypnotic suggestion, which he immediately acts upon following the trance. [W. Leo Peacok, "Religious Hypnosis and Personal Control", Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center, Fort Gordon, Ga., p2]

Peacock also mentions the experience of Jesus with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. Upon wakening from sleep, Peter, James, and John witness Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus (Luke 8:28-37). This experience was used as a positive force to enable the disciples to be able to accept that which was to later develop in Jerusalem. [Peacock, p4]

Though there are no direct references to Jesus using hypnosis (the word had not been used at the time of the original translation into English), he did use the power of suggestion in many of his healings. Jesus often used healing, touch and suggestions for healing. The leper was healed by Jesus' touch and words. Jesus put forth his hand and touching him said, "be thou clean and immediately his leprosy was cleansed" (Matthew 8:1-3). Of course, many other examples could be reported. I leave it to you to read the Gospel and discover other illustrations.

Saint Paul IconPaul speaks of being in a trance while he was praying in the temple (Acts 22:17). Peter "fell into a trance" and from that experience came to see that God loves all people and accepts all people who come to him. Peter had been invited by a centurion who was devout in his faith, but he was not Jewish. At that time, it was religiously unlawful for Peter to visit the centurion's house. After the dream, Peter went to visit the centurion (Acts 10:1-48).

Throughout the Book of Acts, there are a number of references to the apostles looking into the eyes or gazing into the eyes of a person which resulted in the person being healed. This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who when he fixed his gaze upon him, and had seen that he had faith to be made well, said with a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet", and he leaped up and began to walk (Acts 14:9-10).

 Laying On of Hands

The practice of "Laying on of Hands" mentioned in the Bible, uses some of the techniques of hypnosis. In the Book of Acts we read, "And it came about that the father of Publius was lying n bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul went in to see him and after he prayed, he laid his hands on him and healed him." (Acts 28:8).

In the Eighteenth Century, two Roman Catholic priests used hypnotic procedures and gained a reputation as healers. Due to their influence on Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, they played a significant role in the history of hypnosis.

Father Gassner would have those desiring to healed brought into a room where they were told to wait. As their expectation mounted, Father Gassner would wait and then majestically enter the room, lower his cross on the head of a patient and command "be healed". The patient would collapse and upon command would rise praising God for healing. [Morton, p15]

Father Hell used hypnotic techniques and metal plates. He believed that illness occurred when the magnetism of the body was out of polarization. He would have the patients lie down and pass metal plates over them. His suggestion and the passes of the metal plates seemed to cure those whom came to him for healing. 


The modern history of hypnosis is considered to begin with Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1735-1815) who was greatly influenced by Father Gassner and Father Hell. Mesmer came to the conclusion that it was the metal in Father Gassner's cross that caused the cures as well as the religious significance of the cross. If the metal in the cross could bring cures, perhaps any metal could be used for healing. With this information and experiments conducted by Father Hell in mind, Mesmer began to develop his theory of "animal magnetism".

In his medical practice, Mesmer used many hypnotic techniques to help his patients. Mesmer, who practiced in Venice and later in Paris, developed a theory that the body had a magnetic force field which he called "animal magnetism". When this force field was out of focus, sickness resulted. Healing came by making passes over the body and correcting the force field.

The term "mesmerized", which is a synonym for "hypnotized" came from the work of Mesmer. Mesmer was successful in helping large numbers of people, but he had a lot of opposition from the medical profession. He was criticized for the dramatic way he had people sit by tubs filled with water and metal fillings holding a rod that went into the tub. They would hold metal rods which were supposed to magnetically influence their bodies.

Mesmer would appear in an elegant robe and assist in the transfer to the patient of the powerfulMesmerized animal magnetism which came from him. After the patient went into convulsions, he would be removed to the recovery room to become normal and hopefully rid of his disease. A committee of learned men, including Benjamin Franklin, was appointed by the King of France to investigate Mesmer and his methods. The committee discredited Mesmer by ruling that his successes were due to the patient's expectation and imagination rather than from his magnetic passes. [William S. Krager, Clinical and Experimental-Hypnosis, Philadelphia, J.B. Tepincptt Co., 1977, p2]

It is interesting to note that, though the committee recognized the importance of the expectation and the imagination of the patient, none of them followed up on this study. Charles d'Eslen, a pupil of Mesmer, remarked concerning the committee's findings, "If the medicine of imagination is best, why should we not practice the medicine of imagination." [Ernest & Josephine Hilgard, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain, Las Atlas, CA, William Kaubarman, Inc, 1875, p2-3]

Le Marquis de Puysegur

The Marquis de Pusegur (1751-1825) disliked the violent crisis of the mesmeric trance state. He preferred to keep the client in a calm and relaxed state. Some of his clients when into a very deep state of hypnosis which he called "somnambulism" and to this day, the term is used in reference to the deepest states of hypnosis. He discovered that the person could talk in the trance state even though he appeared to be asleep. The Marquis de Pusegur described features of hypnosis (which I would question, but which may be truth at times: (1) concentration of the sense on the operator, (2) acceptance of suggestion without question, and (3) amnesia for events in trance.

A Portuguese Priest, Abbe-Faria (1755-1819) was the first practitioner of mesmerism to understand that somnambulism was a characteristic of the subject rather than the power of the mesmerist. He pointed out that mesmerism was not due to animal magnetism, but to suggestion. Faria changed the terminology of mesmerism. The focus was on the 'concentration" of the subject. The operator became "the concentrator" and somnambulism was Alucid sleep.@ [Frank Pattie (Ed: Jesse Gorden) Handbook of Clinical Experimental-Hypnosis, New York, McMillian Co. 1967, p24-25]

In the middle of the 1800's, three doctors, Elliston, Esdaile and Braid used hypnosis in their medical practice. Both Elliston and Esdaile performed many surgeries with only hypnosis anesthesia.

John Elliotson (1791-1868) invented the stethoscope and developed methods of examining the heart and lungs that are still in use today. He developed the first journal of hypnotism "Zoist" in 1846. He had his problems the medical establishment of his day because he was discharged from the University College Hospital for choosing hypnosis as the subject for the Harveian Oration of 1846. Over the years, he wrote of his success using hypnosis with such problems as insanity, epilepsy, stammering, asthma, headaches, rheumatism, tics, lumbago, palsy, inflammations of the eyes and testicles, painless operations and other human problems. [William J. Bryan, Jr, A History of Hypnosis, from the internet]

Mesmerism in India by James Esdaile, M.D.

Dr. James Esdaile (1808-1859) probably performed more surgical operations under hypnoanesthesia than any physician even to this day. Esdaile performed many surgeries in India using mesmeric passes. He returned to Europe and moved to Scotland. His most famous work was Mesmerism in India. Those who opposed him said that those who had operations were just pretending not to hurt. He took out grapefruit size tumors, did amputations, and many other surgically procedures using hypnosis. It has been reported that the mortality rate of major surgery was about 50%. "In 161 cases operated on by Esdaile (using hypnotic techniques), mortality dropped to 5% and in none of the fatal cases was death an immediate outcome of surgery." [Pattie p31] They died later as a result of infections.

Esdaile wrote that (1) Hypnosis is a natural God-given method of healing. (2) The power produced by the unconscious mind of one under hypnosis is similar both in quality, character and degree with the power of the Creator. (3) All men have within them special power given by God - the power of hypnosis - to direct their movement and provide for themselves. [Morton, p78] Both Dr. Elliston and Dr. Esdaile were condemned by their fellow doctors for their use of hypnosis. At Dr. Esdaile's trial, a doctor claimed that Esdaile's use of hypnosis as an anesthesia was sacrilegious because God meant for people to feel pain. [Leslie LeCron, Complete Guide to Hypnosis, New York, Harper and Row, 1971, p13] 


A less controversial person, Dr. James Braid (1795-1860) decided that the induction methods of the Mesmerist produced hypnosis only because the subject expected it to happen. Dr. Braid proposed that it was suggestion which caused the trance and not the manner or the power of the hypnotist. Braid practiced inductions through verbal suggestions and eye fixation. He found this very successful and coined the words "hypnosis" and "hypnotism" from the Greek word meaning "sleep". When he later discovered that hypnosis was not sleep, he tried to change the word to "monoideism". He explained that hypnosis was like sleep but only in appearance. The word "hypnosis" stuck and is used to this day. James braid wrote the following books on hypnosis: The Rationale of Nervous Sleep Considered in Relation to Animal Magnetism, 1843 and The Power of the Mind over Body, 1846.

James Braid pointed out that (1) hypnosis is a powerful tool. (2) Although hypnotism was capable of curing many diseases for which there had formally been no remedy, it nevertheless was no panacea and was only a medical tool which should be with other medical information, drugs, remedies etc. in order to properly treat the patient. (3) In skilled hands there is no danger associated with hypnotic treatment and neither was there pain or discomfort. (4) A good deal more study and research would be necessary to thoroughly understand a number of theoretical concepts regarding hypnosis. These points were very appropriate in the middle 1800s for there was limited knowledge concerning hypnosis at the time. [William J. Bryan, Jr, A History of Hypnosis, from the Internet]

Ambrose Liebeault (1823-1904) began his work with hypnosis in 1848. He wrote a book but skepticism was so great that he sold only one copy. In 1882, Liebeault worked with a patient who had stubborn case sciatica. The patient had been treated for over six months by Hippolyte Bernheim without success. Perhaps because he was curios or wanted to build a case against Liebeault, Bernheim bought Liebeault's book. He went to visit Liebeault assuming himself that he could prove Liebeault to be a hoax. Once with Liebeault and observing his work, Bernheim was convinced that Liebeault was working with an important tool to help people and became his student, later partner and lifelong friend. Liebeault used hypnosis in all fields of medicine and is credited with increasing the acceptance of the therapeutic uses of hypnosis.

Liebeault was very good at rapid hypnotic inductions. Sometime his induction consisted of the wave of the hand, a pause, and a phrase such as "Sleep, my little kitten. "Liebeault assisted by Bernheim established the ASchool of Nancy."  [Bryant, History

 In 1886 Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919) published Suggestive Therapeutics which among other thing gave an excellent description of Liebeault's clinical practice. Unlike Liebeault's book, Bernheim's book widely accepted. This book is considered one of the greatest works ever produced concerning hypnosis. In his book and practice, he maintained that hypnosis was a normal state and placed their emphasis on suggestion. The suggestions accepted by the patient caused hypnosis to occur. During the hypnotic state suggestions were given and the cure followed. They also stressed that symptom removal was effective and harmless. Bernheim would simply ask the patient to look at him, think of nothing but sleep and tell the patient "Your eyelids begin to feel heavy, your eyes are tired and they begin to blink, they are getting moist, your eyes cannot see distinctly, and they are closed." If the patient did not close her eyes, he would repeat the procedure until they did. If after several attempts, the patient did not close her eyes, the would say that sleep was not necessary and that hypnotic influence could be experienced without eye closure. [Bryant, History]. Andre M. Weitzenhoffer writes of Bernheim in his book, The Practice of Hypnotism, "Hypolyte Bernheim, whom this writer considers to be the father of twenty-century hypnotism, used the term suggestion and not hypnotism or hypnosis in the title of his seminal 1884 work.  "

Jean Martin Charcot (1835-1895) Charcot believed that hypnosis was essentially hysterical and that its major manifestations were limited to those who suffered some abnormality of the nervous system. He was wrong in this, but because he linked hypnosis with disease, his findings became accepted to his scientific colleagues. The Nancy School regarded hypnosis as an entirely normal phenomenon and attributed it to the influence of suggestion. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939. More will be written about Freud in a later chapter) spent some time with Charcot in 1885-1886, studying hypnosis.

In 1886, a Belgian psychophysicist, Joseph Delboeuf attack on Charcot's work at Salpotriere hospital. He said that the reason that Charcot was getting similar responses was because the patients were passing the idea of how to act to other patients. As each patient expected to act the same way they did. This may be important to the activity of Recovered Memory Therapist and their clients which will be covered in a later chapter.

[Figure 27]While the debate between the Nancy School and Salpotriere was going on about the nature and experience of hypnosis, Pierre Janet (1859-1947) was gathering information on which he based his dissertation. Janet's dissertation brought together clinical information on a variety of abnormal mental states related to hysteria and psychosis. Janet employed automatic writing and hypnosis to identify the traumatic origins of problems. Janet laid the foundations for his own and Freud=s later therapeutic approaches through his demonstration of the origins of splitting in psychic traumas in the patient's past history. [Bryan Knight A Brief History of Hypnosis. from the Internet.]

Over a half century ago, Dr. Emil Coue' (1857-1926) of France saw the power of suggestion. He taught people autosuggestion and his favorite phrase was, "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." His methods were based on two principles: (1) when willpower and imagination come into conflict, the power of imagination wins out. (2) imagination can be trained more rapidly than willpower. [Richard Copeland, How to Hypnotized Yourself and Others, New York, Barnes and Nobles, 1982, p50] Modern day advocates of Coue's "Positive Thinking" are Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuler.

The positive effects of hypnosis during World Wars I and II in the treatment of battle fatigue proved very helpful in returning soldiers to battle. Hypnosis was also used by a number of dentists during the war as an anesthesia which put hypnosis in a position of respect which it had not had for years. In 1955, the British Medical Association accepted hypnosis as a valuable tool in medical treatment and in 1958, the American Medical Association followed suit. [LeCron, Complete Guide, p15] Though still misunderstood by many, hypnosis is being used by more and more medical doctors, dentists, psychologists, chaplains, pastors, social workers and others in the helping professions.

Though I have never given a hypnosis stage show and have no intention of doing so in the future, I must tip my hat to the stage hypnotist for keep hypnosis alive though many years of little or no other uses of hypnosis. People like Dave Elman, who taught many physicians and dentist how to successful use hypnosis; Ormond McGill and Charles Tebbetts, both of whom began as stage hypnotist and later wrote and taught is wider applications in overcoming unwanted habits, medical uses and personal improvement; and many others who keep hypnosis alive.

Some of the giants of the later half of the 20th Century are Milton Erickson, Leslie LeCron, Charles Tebbetts, David Cheek, Dave Elman, A. M. Krasner, Ormand McGill, Gil Boyne, Ernest Hilgard, John Kappas, Arthur Winkler, William Kroger and a host of others. Articles on many of these can be found under "Articles 1" and "Articles 2".