This book traces the history of hypnotism in the West from its beginnings in the work of Anton Mesmer at the end of the eighteenth century to the present. It records how "mesmerism" gradually became transformed into hypnotism, acquiring in the process at least a veneer of scientific respectability. Hypnotism is often thought to be synonymous with the induction of a sleep-like state called a trance, but Mesmer did not introduce the trance to medicine; this was the contribution of one of his followers, the Marquis de Puysegur.
In Britain, an early enthusiast for mesmerism was John Elliotson, Professor of Medicine at University College Hospital in London. His support for the new system of treatment eventually cost him his post, but he continued to practise and advocate the technique zealously after his resignation. He appears to have been rather uncritical. However, another doctor, James Braid, had a more scientific approach to the subject, but he remained an isolated figure and interest in hypnotism fell away in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s until it was revived by the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882.
The first major operation to be performed using hypnotism as an analgesic was carried out in 1842 by W. Squire Ward, who amputated the leg of a 42-year-old labourer; the mesmerist was a barrister who had an amateur interest in the subject. A Scottish doctor in India called James Esdaile read about Ward's case and decided to try mesmerism for surgery on his own patients; he carried out a number of operations successfully in this way, but he was unable to get his papers accepted for publication and soon the advent of chemical anaesthesia prevented widespread interest in hypnotism as an analgesic. Esdaile often used Indian assistants to induce the hypnotic trance, and the methods he adopted were somewhat different from those current in Europe; they may have had some connection with yoga. He was less successful when he returned to Scotland and he died at the early age of 50.
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-Martin Charcot was using hypnotism to study hysteria at the Salpetriere, where Sigmund Freud attended some of his demonstrations in 1885-6. Charcot regarded the phenomena as neuromuscular in origin, but a rival school arose at Nancy which held that the role of suggestion was paramount; this is still the prevalent view today, although there is no general agreement about exactly what the hypnotic state is or even whether it exists at all. Forrest considers the modern situation in his final chapter, though without committing himself on the exact status of hypnotism.
Forrest was Professor of Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, and has used hypnotism for over 40 years in therapy, so his interest in the subject is clinical as well as historical. His book covers much the same ground as Alan Gauld's A History of Hypnotism but is aimed at a less specialized audience and is considerably less comprehensive. This being so, it might have benefited from rather more vigorous pruning, since some of the anecdotal material it contains is of somewhat marginal interest. It would be satisfactory for readers with a merely passing interest in the subject but anyone who wishes to go into it in any depth would be well advised to turn to Gauld.