Papers of John Adams, volume 16


To Joseph Willard

John Adams to Benjamin Waterhouse, 8 September 1784 Adams, John Waterhouse, Benjamin
To Benjamin Waterhouse
Dear Sir Auteuil near Paris Septr. 8. 1784

I received your friendly Letter of the 19. June, by my dear Mrs Adams, with great Pleasure and Shall ever be obliged to you for a Line when you have Leisure.— I am very glad our University has so able a Professor of Physick, and I doubt not you will soon Silence all Opposition.1 I should be obliged to you for your two orations.2

All Paris, and indeed all Europe, is at present amused with a Kind of Physical New Light or Witcraft, called Animal Magnetism. a German Empirick by the Name of Mesmer, has turned the Heads of a multitude of People. He pretends that his Art is an Universal Cure, and wholly Superseeds the Practice of Physick and consequently your Professorship, so that you will not, I hope become his Disciple.

The Thing is so Serious that the King has thought it necessary to appoint a Number of Phisicians and Accademicians, with your Friend Franklin at their Head to enquire into it. They are all able Men And have published a Masterly Report, which Shews very clearly that this Magnetism can never be usefull, for the best of all possible Reasons viz because it does not exist. one would think the Report Sufficient to annihilate the Enthusiasm but it has not yet fully Succeeded, on the Contrary it has Stirred up a Nest of Hornets against the Authers of it, and Mesmer has the Boldness to apply to Parliament by a Public Process, to have his Art examined anew. What may be the Consequence I dont know: But I think the Phrenzy must evaporate.3

The Professors of the Art have acquired sometimes a Surprising Ascendency over the Imaginations of their Patients so as to throw them into violent Convulsions, only by a few odd Gestures. All this the Commissioners ascribe to Imagination and I suppose justly, but if this Faculty of the Mind can produce Such terrible Effects upon the Body, I think you Physicians ought to study and teach Us some Method of managing and controuling it.—

I am, sir with great Esteem, your Friend / and humble servant

John Adams

RC (MHi:Adams-Waterhouse Coll.); internal address: “Dr Waterhouse”; endorsed: “Adams”; notation: “J. A. / on Mesmerism.”


The letter from Waterhouse, who since 1782 was the Hersey Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic at the Harvard Medical School, has not been found ( AFC , 5:66).


In the left margin is a notation, possibly by Waterhouse, keyed to the text at this point. It reads, “Latin inaugural Oration. & […] Introductory Med. oration.” The first almost certainly was Waterhouse’s “Oratio inauguralis,” given at the opening of the Harvard Medical School in 1783 but not published until 1829. The second may be his paper “Of Epidemic Diseases,” given at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and published in the Boston Continental Journal on 5 and 12 June 1783.


German physician Franz Anton Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778 and caused a sensation with demonstrations of animal magnetism. Positing that a magnetic fluid flowed from the stars through all living things and that disease resulted from obstructions in its circulation, Mesmer claimed the ability to manipulate the fluid and cure illness. By 1784 French authorities considered Mesmer and his theories a threat to Enlightenment rationalism and national dignity. That spring Louis XVI appointed a commission combining physicians from the Faculté de médecine de Paris with members of the Académie royale des sciences to investigate and put Benjamin Franklin in charge of the effort. The report of the commissioners was read on 4 Sept. and published on the 24th as Rapport des commissaires chargés par le roi de l’examen du magnétisme animal, Paris, 1784 (Claude-Anne Lopez, “Franklin and Mesmer: An Encounter,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 66:325–331 [July–Aug. 1993]).