Elliotson, John (1791–1868)
President of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of
London and the first great exponent of animal magnetism in
England. Elliotson was born October 29, 1791, in London. He
later studied medicine at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities,
continuing after his M.D. degree with studies at Guy’s Hospital,
London. He became a professor of principles and practice
of medicine at University College Hospital, which he
helped to establish and where he lectured and served as a physician
for a brief period (1834–38). In 1837 he became president
of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, London, and was also
a fellow of the Royal Society, Royal College of Physicians.
He was introduced to the subject of animal magnetism in
1837 by Baron Du Potet, whom he allowed to experiment at
University College Hospital. His curiosity aroused, he himself
began to study the phenomena and in 1838 found two wonderful
somnambules in the O’Key sisters, Jane and Elizabeth. The
success of his experiments created a stir. When he applied for
a demonstration in one of the theaters of the college, he was
refused permission, and he was finally requested to discontinue
mesmeric practice in the hospital. Following this, in the autumn
of 1838, he resigned his professorship and severed his
connections with the hospital.
Elliotson’s enthusiasm sustained the first serious blow when
Thomas Wakeley, the editor of the medical journal The Lancet,
invited the O’Key sisters to his own house and demonstrated
that the violent convulsions into which the patients were sent
were produced when, unknown to Elliotson and the patients,
the mesmerized piece of money that was supposed to call forth
the phenomena was resting in the waistcoat pocket of one of
the company. He also proved that if the subjects were kept in
ignorance, unmesmerized water could produce sleep, whereas
mesmerized water had no effect.
After this the O’Keys were considered exposed and The Lancet
closed its columns to mesmerism. Elliotson, nevertheless,
was not discouraged. The year 1843 witnessed the birth of the
journal The Zoist, which continued under the direction of Elliotson
and one Engledue until 1856. It was a journal of mesmerism
and phrenology, Elliotson being also an enthusiastic phrenologist.
In 1824 he founded the Phrenological Society of
London and was its president until 1843.
In mesmerism he saw a powerful means for phrenological
research. Nevertheless, The Zoist was mainly concerned with the
therapeutic aspects of mesmerism. With the advent of Spiritualism,
it opened its columns to many critical articles on the
phenomena. Elliotson himself attended a few sittings with
Maria Hayden and described his experiences in an article,
‘‘The Departed Spirits.’’ He was somewhat skeptical and attributed
everything to the agency of the medium. Table-turning,
however, meant something different to him. It fitted into the
magnetic effluence theory, and Elliotson, on the basis of obserEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Elliotson, John
vations of others alone, concluded that: ‘‘there probably is true
movement of the table independent of muscular force.’’
In 1863 he was introduced at Dieppe, France, to the famous
medium D. D. Home, with the result that, according to the
Morning Post of August 3, 1868 ‘‘. . . he expressed his conviction
of the truth of the phenomena, and became a sincere Christian,
whose handbook henceforth was the Bible. Some time after this
he said he had been living all his life in darkness and had
thought there was nothing in existence but the material.’’
Elliotson’s first step after his conversion was to seek a reconciliation
with John Ashburner, from whom he had become
alienated by the latter’s advocacy of Spiritualism. In 1867 Ashburner
had published Notes and Studies on Animal Magnetism and
Spiritualism. Elliotson now advocated what he saw as the truth
of Spiritualism with the same zeal that he had formerly opposed
it. Both Elliotson and Ashburner are of importance as
representing the transition from animal magnetism to Spiritualism
by the British. Elliotson died the next year on July 29,
1868, in London.