Rare Book Profile: John Elliotson’s Numerous Cases of Surgical Operations Without Pain in the Mesmeric State.

John Elliotson’s Numerous Cases of Surgical Operations Without Pain in the Mesmeric State: With Remarks Upon the Opposition of Many Members of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society and Others to the Reception of the Inestimable Blessings of Mesmerism (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1843) is one of the earliest works on the use of hypnosis as surgical anesthesia.  Physicians at the time were experimenting with a number of substances, seeking to dull pain without killing the patient. The use of ether as an anesthetic was introduced in 1846.

John Elliotson (1791-1868) was a prominent London physician.  After studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Cambridge University, and St. Thomas and Guy’s hospitals in London, he became a professor of medicine at London University in 1831, and physician to University College Hospital in 1834.  He was one of the first in London to emphasize clinical lecturing and one of the earliest British physicians to advocate use of the stethoscope. He was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, served as president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, and was a founding member of the Phrenological Society.  Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins were among his admirers.

At the time that Elliotson was beginning his career, there was a resurgence of popular interest in mesmerism, which had been considered discredited 50 years earlier by a French commission of prominent scientists, including Benjamin Franklin. While some later inquiries were not as dismissive, Mesmerism was considered scientifically questionable.

Elliotson witnessed public demonstrations of mesmeric trance by French practitioners in 1837, and began using it in his practice.  Elliotson’s advocacy of mesmerism and public demonstrations he gave at University College Hospital drew criticism from the medical profession. One of his harshest critics was Thomas Wakley, editor of The Lancet, who had at first supported him. Opposition from the Council of University College and the Hospital Committee forced him to resign his posts in 1838, but he continued in private practice. In 1843 Elliotson established The Zoist, a mesmerist magazine in which he continued experimental and scientific investigation of mesmeric phenomena, and he founded a mesmeric hospital in 1849.

In Numerous Cases of Surgical Operations Without Pain in the Mesmeric State, Elliotson describes procedures performed by himself and others, especially an amputation by W. Squire Ward and mesmerist W. Topham. He describes the controversy that broke this case was reported and addresses his critics’ arguments. It is a slim, inexpensively produced volume, with small type, narrow margins, and no illustrations.

The Health Sciences Library’s copy is the first American edition, published in the same year as the British edition. It is bound in green ribbed cloth with the title stamped in gilt on the front cover. It came to the library as a gift from James J. Waring.


Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, emily.epstein@ucdenver.edu or 303-724-2119.

[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]