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Esdaile, James

Category: Healer

Dr James Esdaile (1808–1859), is a notable figure in the history of ‘mesmerism’.  ‘Mesmerism’ was not classified in the days of Esdaile as hypnotism and there were a number of people who believed they were not the same – some still do.  But Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) who gave the technique its name, used "Mesmeric passes" and the  word "mesmerise" was intentionally used to separate practitioners of mesmerism from the various "fluid" and "magnetic" theories around at the time.  So to all intents and purposes Esdaile was practising an early form of hypnotherapy.

James was the eldest son of the Rev. James Esdaile and was born in Montrose, Angus, Scotland. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating M.D. in 1830.

In 1830, he was appointed as assistant surgeon to the East India Company, and arrived in Calcutta, Bengal (then the capital of British India), in 1831.  He was appointed to the small Hooghly Hospital; and, as a consequence of this, was also responsible for the local Jail hospital.  It is here that he started to use hypnotherapy to anaesthetise his patients and help relieve their pain.

As performed by Esdaile, the mesmeric act was an exhausting procedure:
Esdaile's method was to make the patient lie down in dark room, wearing only a loin cloth, and [Esdaile would] repeatedly pass the hands in the shape of claws, slowly over the [patient's] body, within one inch of the surface, from the back of the head to the pit of the stomach, breathing gently on the head and eyes all the time [and] he seems to have sat behind the patient, leaning over him almost head to head and to have laid his right hand for extended periods on the pit of the stomach.
As a consequence, Esdaile, whose own health was far from good, soon began to delegate this exhausting work which, when necessary, would involve "[having] a patient magnetized for hours each day for ten or twelve days [to his] native assistants, saving his own strength for the performance of surgery".

In a short time, Esdaile had gained a wide reputation amongst the European and indigenous communities for painless surgery, especially in cases of the scrotal "tumours" that were endemic in Bengal at that time.  Some of these massive scrotal growths were as large as 112lbs/51kg (Gauld, 1992, p.222) due to filariasis (similar to elephantiasis) that was transmitted by mosquitoes.

Esdaile's mesmeric anaesthesia was extremely safe:

I beg, to state, for the satisfaction of those who have not yet a practical knowledge of the subject, that I have seen no bad consequences whatever arise from persons being operated on when in the mesmeric trance. Cases have occurred in which no pain has been felt subsequent to the operation even; the wounds healing in a few days by the first intention; and in the rest, I have seen no indications of any injury being done to the constitution. On the contrary, it appears to me to have been saved, and that less constitutional disturbance has followed than under ordinary circumstances.
There has not been a death among the cases operated on.

In 1846, Esdaile's work with mesmerism-assisted painless surgery at Hoogly had come to the attention of the Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir Herbert Maddocks. Maddocks appointed a committee of seven reputable (medical and non-medicial) officials to investigate Esdaile's claims. They submitted a positive report (on 9 October 1846), and a small hospital in Calcutta was put at his disposal in November 1846.

By 1848, a mesmeric hospital supported entirely by public subscription was opened in Calcutta especially for Esdaile's work. It was closed 18 months later by the Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir John Littler.

In 1848, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, appointed Esdaile to the position of Presidency Surgeon; and, in 1850, whilst not supporting the continuation of the mesmeric hospital in Calcutta, Dalhousie had so much respect for Esdaile and his work, that he appointed him to the position of Marine Surgeon.

It is clear from the descriptions that Esdaile had a healing gift.  This was in part due to the fact he was not himself a healthy man.  He suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma and had done since he was young.  Furthermore on arriving in India, Esdaile suffered a total nervous breakdown and had to be given a rest leave from 1836 to 1838.  His life was also not a happy one.  Esdaile married three times.  His first wife died during their voyage to India; his second wife died in India some years later. He was survived by his third wife, Eliza Weatherhead, whom he married sometime around 1851.  Grief.

 “Esdaile ..is a Mesmerist – that is, he believes in the transmission of some peculiar occult influence from the operator to the patient, as the cause of the subsequent phenomena” [Braid, “Facts and Observations as to the Relative Value of Mesmeric and Hypnotic Coma and Ethereal Narcotism, for the Mitigation or entire Prevention of Pain during Surgical Operations”, Medical Times, 13th February, 1847, vol. XV, 1846-47, pp. 381-382; continued vol. XVI., 27th February, 1847: 10-11]

Esdaile retired from the British East India Company in 1853, upon the expiration of his 20 years' contract. After briefly returning to Scotland he settled in Sydenham where he died on 10 January 1859.


Esdaile, J., Letters from the Red Sea, Egypt, and the Continent, (Calcutta), 1839.

Esdaile, J., Mesmerism in India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, (London), 1846.

Esdaile, J., Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance, With the Practical Application of Mesmerism in Surgery and Medicine, Hippolyte Bailliere, (London), 1852.


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