Elliotson invited Dupotet to try his technique on some patients at UCH and, impressed by the results, he adopted the method himself. Over the next 18 months Elliotson mesmerised dozens of patients at UCH and he invited friends, colleagues and journalists to witness his experiments. One of his guests was the young Dickens who made the short journey to UCH from his house in Doughty Street with his artist friend George Cruikshank on 4 January 1838. Elliotson’s casebooks, in the UCL archives, record their visit. Dickens was so bewitched by what he saw that he learned the technique himself – later practising on his wife Catherine and others – and became a lifelong enthusiast for mesmerism. Through his friendship with Dickens, Elliotson became the medical darling of the Victorian literary world.
Elliotson went on to stage dramatic demonstrations of mesmerism in the lecture theatre of UCH which drew large crowds and sparked sensational headlines. In particular, spectators were entranced by the Okey sisters, 17-year-old Elizabeth and 15-year-old Jane. Admitted to UCH for epilepsy, their names were routinely misspelled O’Key, and writers ever since have assumed the girls were Irish. In fact, genealogical records show, they came from a working-class English family in nearby Somers Town. Under mesmerism these two demure little misses were transformed into precocious little minxes who joked and flirted with their audiences as well as lifting heavy weights and withstanding electric shocks.
Ultimately, however, Elliotson’s love of novelty was his downfall. Not content with showing that mesmerism could improve certain conditions and banish pain, he was bent on witnessing bizarre phenomena reported from the Continent where doctors claimed patients could forecast the future, diagnose other patients’ ailments and distinguish ‘mesmerised’ water and metal. When The Lancet demolished the latter theory in exhaustive tests on the Okeys, Elliotson’s reputation was severely tarnished. But he sealed his own fate by taking Elizabeth Okey to a ward where she predicted two patients would shortly die. UCL promptly banned mesmerism and he had no option but to resign.