Miracle at East Grinstead
The patient was a horrible sight. His whole body, apart from his face, neck and chest, was covered by a black substance that bore no resemblance to normal skin. As he was being wheeled into the operating theatre in the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, the anaesthetist noted large warty excrescences five millimetres wide all over the legs and feet, while the hands were enveloped in ‘a rigid horny casing’ that had cracked and become chronically infected.
‘To the touch,’ he wrote later, ‘the skin felt as hard as a normal finger-nail, and was so inelastic that any attempt at bending resulted in a crack in the surface, which would then ooze blood-stained serum.’ In fact, the patient could hardly move without causing painful fissures to appear in the grotesque armour plating he had worn all his life.
He was sixteen years old. His name has not been made public, so I will call him John. He was suffering from what is known as fish-skin disease; a misleading term, for the vile black substance that covered most of his body had none of the functional beauty of real fish skin. He had been born with it, and it had become thicker and darker throughout his life, during which he had been in and out of several hospitals without being cured. At school, he had been treated like an outcast because of his unpleasant appearance and equally unpleasant smell. Not surprisingly, he was shy and withdrawn, and his chances of leading a normal life seemed minimal.
The Queen Victoria Hospital had a worldwide reputation for its plastic surgery department, where Sir Archibald McIndoe and his team had worked wonders on the shattered bodies of pilots shot down during the Battle of Britain. Now, the plastic surgeons were going to see what they could do for John, and on 25 May 1950 they set to work on him, starting with the palms of his hands. If these could be restored to normality by skin transplants, John could at least do manual work, which he had been unable to do previously without considerable pain.
They scraped the black mess off both his palms, and transplanted some skin from his chest. The operations did not succeed; a month later the newly grafted skin had thickened and turned black, and a second attempt was equally unsuccessful. Sir Archibald McIndoe himself had a look at the patient, and agreed with his colleagues that there was no reason to suppose that they could do anything more for him. We can safely assume that this meant the end of the road for the poor boy. Plastic surgery was his last hope, and if the world’s most celebrated team of plastic surgeons felt obliged to give up, John and his parents would have to accept the inevitable. He was incurable.
Then, in February 1951, the anaesthetist had an idea.
‘Why don’t you treat him with hypnosis?’ he asked one of the surgeons. ‘It’s very good for cases like this.’
The anaesthetist was Dr Albert A. Mason, a senior registrar who was also a skilled hypnotist. Among his successful cases had been several involving the removal of warts by suggestion under hypnosis, and as far as he was concerned, John’s case looked like one of multiple warts. If one wart could be removed by hypnosis, why not a million of them?
The surgeon was not amused. He was already very annoyed that John’s skin grafts were not taking.
‘He turned round and looked at me rather sourly,’ Mason recalled later, ‘and said, “Why don’t you?” and walked out of the theatre.’ None of those concerned can have had any idea that medical history was about to be made.
Mason duly hypnotised John, told him that the warts were going to fall off his left arm, and asked him to come back the following week.
‘About five days later’, Mason reported, ‘the horny layer softened, became friable, and fell off.’ Underneath it was what appeared to be normal skin. After another five days, John’s arm was ‘completely clear from shoulder to wrist’. He was referring only to his patient’s left arm. The right one was as black as ever.
Feeling rather pleased with himself, Mason took John along to show him to the surgeon. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I told you warts did very well with hypnosis.’
The surgeon’s jaw dropped. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he exclaimed. ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ (These are his exact words as recalled by Dr Mason.)
‘No,’ Mason replied. ‘What?’
‘This’, said the surgeon, ‘is a case of congenital ichthyosiform erythrodermia of Brocq. Now go into the library and look it up.’
Mason did so, and was astonished to find that ichthyosis, as it is commonly known, is not only congenital, meaning that John had been born with it, but also structural and organic. This meant that John’s skin had no oil-forming glands that would enable its outer layers to flake off and renew themselves. His black armour plating would just go on building up. In the opinion of one of Britain’s leading medical hypnotists, Dr Stephen Black: ‘This is an appalling and entirely disfiguring condition, and normally remains with the patient throughout life - which is apt to be short.’ It had been considered incurable since 1904.
‘For something like this to change is really as unbelievable as for a club foot to change,’ Mason said. But it had changed.
He told his colleague what he had found in the library.
‘Well,’ said the surgeon, ‘you’d better have an explanation, because we’re presenting (John) at the Royal Society of Medicine in two days. Mason did not have an explanation, and nor did anybody else.
Some of the doctors who attended the demonstration at the Royal Society were profoundly impressed. Dr Ray Bettley was surprised that such a case should respond to any kind of treatment. ‘That it should respond to hypnotic suggestion’, he said, ‘demands a revision of current concepts of the relation between mind and body.’ Dermatologist Dr Kathryn Cohen was ‘astounded by the changes wrought in the patient’s skin’. John’s cure, she said, was ‘unprecedented and inexplicable’.
One doctor made a gallant attempt to explain it. ‘We must suppose’, he said, ‘that the hypnotic suggestion acts locally in some such way by soothing or accentuating the psychical trauma, whatever that may be.’ Another doctor said he was not surprised by the cure, since ichthyosis was just another allergy, to which Dr Cohen retorted that nobody knew exactly what an allergy was in the first place. (The original definition by Von Pirquet, the Viennese doctor who coined the word in 1906, was ‘an acquired specific altered capacity to react’ by body tissue.)
Even Stephen Black, who carried out a good deal of research into hypnosis and allergy in the 1960s (some together with Mason), could only speculate that ‘allergy, or something very like it, is still as good a guess as anything else’ to describe ichthyosis.4 It seemed clear that nobody really had any idea what Mason had done. The editor of the British Medical Journal commented on ‘the need for further basic scientific work on the relation between the mind and the skin’, while a BMJ reader predicted that Mason’s case ‘may well open up a new province in pathology and therapeutics’.
Now the story becomes considerably more complicated. After his initial and immediate success with John’s left arm, Mason carried on his treatment, starting with the right arm and moving on to the legs and finally the trunk. He was eventually able to report an improvement in each area, ranging from 50 per cent on the legs and feet (which had previously been ‘completely and heavily covered’ by the black armour) to 95 per cent on the arms and complete clearing of the palms, although the fingers were ‘not greatly improved’. So far, so good.
A year later, Mason was delighted to find that John’s mental state had changed as dramatically as had that of his skin. He had become ‘a normal happy boy’ and had found a job as an electrician’s assistant.
Although all areas of his skin had not cleared entirely, there had been no relapse in the successfully treated parts. After a further three years the situation was much the same. The cure was not total but, as far as it went, it seemed to be permanent.
Mason then asked John if he would like him to try to clear up the remaining black patches. John agreed, but the experienced hypnotist found to his bewilderment that his star patient had become ‘totally unhypnotisable’. He even seemed rather frightened by the idea of being hypnotised. Mason decided ‘to leave well alone’.
He then went on to tackle a further eight cases of congenital ichthyosis. These were not reported until 1961, when he wrote to the British Medical Journal announcing that every one of them had been a complete failure. ‘Why one case responded and the others did not still remains a mystery,’ he commented. In the same year, however, an Oxford general practitioner, Dr C.A.S. Wink, published an account of his successful treatment of two similar cases - two little sisters aged seven and five. Like Mason, he had worked on one part of the body at a time, and had also failed to bring about total clearing although there had been considerable improvement in each case.
Mystery was being added to mystery. Why should a hypnotist succeed with one patient, and then fail with eight others? Why should he be unable to hypnotise his original patient four years later? Why should Wink succeed with two patients? Why should some parts of the body respond to suggestion under hypnosis more than others? Above all, why on earth should any part of the body respond at all? As Mason himself put it, referring to ichthyosis and a couple of other skin diseases that he had managed to treat successfully: ‘When one considers that these conditions are caused by a congenital absence of certain dermal tissues, one can only conjecture wildly as to why they should respond to anything.’ He went on to conjecture very modestly and cautiously, going out of his way to thank John for recovering from a ‘hitherto incurable disease ... thereby making me believe that I had “power” and so causing me to spend ten years disproving this belief. His original conclusion was that either there was a psychological factor in the cause of ichthyosis, or else it was possible to influence a congenital organic condition by psychological means. Or, of course, it could be a combination of both.
Recalling the original case in 1982, thirty years after the event, by which time he had moved to California, become a psychoanalyst, and given up hypnotism altogether, Mason was still mystified. ‘I suppose it means that potentially anything can be done, since we have the embryonic possibilities within our skin.’ He assumed that there must have been ‘tiny remnants of glands’ in John’s body that had somehow come to life under the stimulus of suggestion under hypnosis. ‘But’, he added, ‘the stimulus for such a profound change must be equally profound.’
True, no doubt, but what was the stimulus? Did it come from the patient or the hypnotist? If it came from John, why did it work the first time and on several subsequent occasions, only to fail four years later? If it came from Mason, the same questions arise. We can rule out the possibility that he had lost the knack, for he subsequently published several cases of successful treatment of other conditions.
Anyway, good hypnotists tend to get better at their job, helped by the increasing confidence that comes with experience. They do not suddenly forget how to do it.
Having asked so many questions, I will now try to answer at least one, not by wild conjecture, but by drawing attention to some features of the original case that have not been mentioned in any comments on it, including Mason’s, that I have been able to find.
When Mason first saw John, he thought he was looking at a case of multiple warts. This was quite a reasonable assumption. Ichthyosis is fortunately a rare disease, and many doctors never come across it at all. He knew he could cure warts by hypnotic suggestion, so there was no reason why he should not be able to cure millions of them. He had complete confidence. He had also been given a considerable stimulus when his surgeon colleague had told him to go ahead and cure the patient himself. This was a direct challenge, and it is well known that on such occasions people often find themselves doing things they did not know they could do, such as making an effective speech in public or performing ‘superhuman’ feats of physical strength.
Mason only found out what John’s disease really was, and that it was supposed to be incurable, after he had already begun to cure it. It must be rather unsettling to find out that you have just done something that is supposed to be impossible, especially if you do not understand how you did it. Mason’s original total confidence must have begun to falter, if only at a very deep unconscious level, until it eventually fell to the point where he could not even get his patient into the hypnotic state. In 1955 he was dealing with the same disease and the same patient as in 1951. The only thing that had changed was the state of his own mind.
Dr Wink, unlike Mason, did know that his patients had ichthyosis and not warts. He also knew something Mason had not known in 1951 - that ichthyosis could be cured by suggestion under hypnosis.
So he too had confidence in his own ability, though for a very different reason. It is important to remember that Mason mentioned his eight failures only after Wink had published his own case. If Wink had known about these earlier, his level of confidence must surely have been lowered. It is becoming evident that the confidence-level of the hypnotist is a crucial factor in a successful cure. Indeed, in a recent book written by and for medical hypnotists, we find the following (with emphasis in the original): ‘Suggestions must be given in a positive and dogmatic way, there must be no doubt in the hypnotist’s voice (or mind) that the improvement suggested will be achieved’.
How, it will be asked, can a hypnotist’s mind be expected to be free from doubt if he is trying to do something that has not been done before? Dr Wink made a revealing comment in this context. ‘In most cases’, he wrote in his report, ‘emphatic and optimistic assertions of cure by hypnosis remain indefensible so long as the outcome is in fact uncertain.’ On the other hand, he added, to make cautious suggestions is ‘to spike one’s own guns by undermining the authority behind one’s suggestion’.
The second statement is undoubtedly true. The first is a matter of opinion, and I cannot help suspecting that Mason’s 1951 case would not have been successful if he had known what it was he was trying to cure. He might even not have attempted it. Who can tell how many other ‘incurable’ conditions are as incurable as is generally assumed?
The cases mentioned above are not the only ones in recent years in which hypnotically-induced cures have taken place that can be described as miraculous not implying the intervention of any supernatural agency, but in my dictionary’s other sense of ‘exciting admiring awe’.
The work of Dr Dabney Ewin of Tulane University in New Orleans certainly excites my admiring awe. In the casualty ward of the hospital where he is an associate professor of surgery, he uses hypnosis not as a last resort, but as a first resort, in the emergency treatment of burns. Indeed, the success of his daring method seems to depend on how soon his patients can get to him after their accidents.
When we burn ourselves, two quite separate things happen. First, the area involved is damaged by the heat. This happens immediately, but there is then an ‘inflammatory response’ from the body that leads to swelling, inflammation and pain. This reaction can take up to twenty-four hours to have its full effect, and it seems there is a time lag before the original stimulus-message is sent from the site of the wound. Ewin takes advantage of this.
‘If you can get to them within the first two hours, before the response has been released, you can block the response and, in effect, have them react as though they had not been burned,’ he explained in a 1982 interview. He then produced photographs of the damage done to a patient’s arm after an explosion of acetylene -which burns at 3,000 degrees Centigrade. Within an hour of the accident, he had hypnotised the man, implanted the suggestion of feeling cool and comfortable, dressed the wound and sent him back to work. The following day, the skin was still charred, but there was no swelling, no infection, and above all no pain. The arm was completely healed in twelve days. There is, it seems, a place for hypnosis in the first-aid kit.
There are obvious difficulties in carrying out controlled experiments to prove this. The researcher would need two identically burned arms to work on, one of which would have to be left untreated. One is not likely to come across these by chance, so an arm would have to be burned deliberately. Any doctor who did such a thing today would probably be struck off the register for malpractice. Yet it has been done, and the man who did it was Professor Joseph Delboeuf (1831-96) of the University of Liège, a member of the Belgian Royal Academy. The patient, named as Mademoiselle J., is thought to have been one of his servants. If so, she was a remarkably obedient one, and her suffering for the cause of science deserves to be remembered.
At seven o’clock one evening in 1887, Mademoiselle J. sat at a table and laid her bare arms upon it. Delboeuf heated an iron bar eight millimetres wide until it was red hot. He then calmly proceeded to brand the woman by laying the bar down so that it rested on both her arms, suggesting as he did so that she would feel pain only in her left arm. This, not surprisingly, she did.
He then bandaged both arms, and on removing the bandages the following morning he found a clearly outlined stripe of exactly the same width as the bar on the right arm, with no sign of swelling or inflammation. The left arm presented quite a different picture: the eight-millimetre stripe had expanded to three centimetres of inflamed blister. And it hurt, whereas the right arm did not. At least, this is what Delboeuf reported; we do not have Mademoiselle J.‘s version of events.
A day later, the left arm was hurting even more, whereupon Delboeuf mercifully removed the pain by suggestion and, according to him, brought about rapid and successful healing of both arms. He concluded that just as a persistent belief in disease could actually cause it, an equally persistent non-belief could help it go away.
In a considerably more humane experiment carried out in 1975, French psychiatrist Dr Léon Chertok showed that wounds can not only be healed by suggestion, but also caused by it. He managed to produce a handsome blister on the arm of a patient by placing a coin on it and suggesting that it was very hot, which it was not. An intriguing detail was that the patient reported feeling no sensation of heat at all, and yet her skin reacted as if something extremely hot had indeed come into contact with it - on the exact spot where the coin had been placed.
Whereas Ewin had managed to stop the nervous system from getting its message through, Chertok did just the opposite by persuading it to send a fake message without any conscious cooperation at all on the part of the patient. He saw this as ‘irrefutable proof of the influence of the mind on physiological processes’, and wondered why this was still not fully acknowledged ‘in spite of the accumulation of data’.
Some of the best data have been provided by Stephen Black, whose adventurous and scientifically impeccable research during the 1960s seemed to open up several new provinces in medical science.
In one particularly interesting experiment, he managed to suppress the ‘Mantoux reaction’ to injections of tubercle bacillus in four subjects out of four by direct suggestion under hypnosis. Normally, if these injections are given to somebody who has had tuberculosis, there is an almost immediate reddening and swelling of the skin in response, which can be accurately measured. Black simply ordered his subjects ‘not to react’, and they did not, although the same four subjects had shown the normal Mantoux reaction when injected without hypnosis.
Experiments like those I have mentioned involving suggestion and the skin are of special interest for the simple reason that the results are immediately visible, and so are not open to doubt. Chertok’s coin test was filmed from start to finish, while Mason, Ewin and Black all have photographic evidence for their cases. Black even took biopsies, slicing pieces of skin from the arms of his long-suffering subjects and photographing them under a microscope. There can no longer be any doubt at all that the mind can influence the skin - for better or worse - to a very considerable extent, far more so than when we turn pale or blush. And if it can do this, might it not be able to influence other parts of the body to the same extent? Before pursuing this question, here is some evidence of my own for a skin phenomenon I have witnessed at first hand.
Stigmata are physical symptoms, in the form of marks on the skin, of what is called hysterical conversion, whereby repressed feelings and impulses get ‘converted’ into real and visible effects. The best-known example of this is an appearance of marks on the bodies of priests and nuns that resemble the wounds of the crucified Jesus.
It was in July 1975, and the body in question belonged to a very attractive teenager from the East End of London. Her father had died three months previously, at the age of forty, following what she believed to have been a hospital accident. Since then, she had been very depressed, and the fact that she did not get on with her mother only made things worse. She was now being looked after by her boyfriend and his very sympathetic family.
As we sat talking in the living room, in broad daylight, the five of us present all saw a large red patch appear on the girl’s bare arm, above the elbow. A drop of blood then oozed out, followed by the sudden appearance of five or six thin, straight red lines. These simply materialised out of the red patch as if the girl had been slashed with an invisible razor, though she apparently felt no pain. I managed to take two photographs while this was going on, and later that day similar marks appeared on her heel and on two places on her upper shin, all of which I also photographed. A particularly baffling detail was that the bleeding in each case stopped almost as soon as it started, some of the straight lines not bleeding at all.
Here was a plainly visible effect similar to those produced to order by Delboeuf and Chertok (and many others), although in this case nobody was suggesting anything, unless it was the unfortunate girl herself, and she was certainly not doing that on purpose. The emotional turmoil she was in as a result of her father’s sudden death probably had a good deal to do with the appearance of her stigmata, but how an emotional state can convert itself into straight lines on the skin is a complete mystery. To label such a process ‘conversion hysteria’ explains nothing. This incident made me suspect that the force of suggestion may be at work in many more ways than we realise, with or without the help of a hypnotist.
What is hypnosis, anyway? Until very recently, nobody has been quite sure. One prominent American researcher, Dr Theodore X. Barber, has argued that there is in fact no such thing, and that since the phenomena we associate with what we call hypnosis are also to be found in other states of consciousness, there is no need for the word at all. It is certainly a misleading one. Although it comes from the Greek word for sleep, hupnos, the man who coined it (James Braid, 1843) was well aware that the hypnotic state is not the same as ordinary sleep. He saw hypnosis as a kind of ‘nervous sleep’ or partial suppression of the brain, ‘a peculiar condition of the nervous system into which it can be thrown by artificial contrivance’.
Stephen Black gave a more complete definition in 1969: ‘Hypnosis is a sleepless state of decreased or altered consciousness which occurs in most animal phyla as a result of constrictive or rhythmic stimuli usually imparted by another organism and which may be distinguished from sleep by the presence of catatonia, relative awareness or increased suggestibility and in which direct contact is made with the unconscious mind in man.’ It is the last ten words of that unwieldy sentence that may be the most important.
The word suggestion is equally misleading. It often has a rather half-hearted connotation, as when asking for advice on which dish to choose from the menu. Yet there is nothing half-hearted about suggestion as used in hypnosis. The Russian neurologist V. M. Bekhterev defined it in 1905 as ‘the direct conveyance of ideas, emotions, or any other psychophysical conditions to another person’s mind in such a way that his personal consciousness and his criticism are bypassed’.
He was of course referring to the unconscious mind. This in turn was informally described by Dr Gilbert Maher-Loughnan, vice chairman of the Hypnosis Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, in a 1982 interview as: ‘the thing that controls our heartbeats, our blood pressure, our respiration - every function of the body’. He added: ‘The use of hypnosis as I see it is to mobilise these unconscious processes and to further the improvement in whatever part of the autonomic nervous system, which is controlled by the unconscious, has gone out of order.’
Now, if the unconscious mind controls every function of the body, and if suggestions can be made directly to it, it seems that we have here a fairly powerful technique, especially as it is well known that almost any suggestion tends to be accepted and carried out by the unconscious unless it has a very good reason not to do so. What, then, are the limits of this technique? If somebody can interfere with the internal information system of somebody else merely by inserting the appropriate programme, thereby causing or suppressing blisters or renovating large areas of ‘incurable’ fish-skin, what else might be possible? Hypnosis may not be a panacea, or cure for all ills, but it is unquestionably a cure for some of them, including some very serious ones.
We might think that this undeniable fact has led to great efforts being made to research its full potential. If the mind can bring about cures, at almost no cost and with no side effects, should we not study it as thoroughly as we study chemical and surgical techniques of attacking or invading the body? In a cost-conscious society, it makes no sense to ignore a harmless, inexpensive and very powerful technique that can easily be learned by almost anybody. Yet this is what the great majority of medical practitioners and researchers have been doing for two hundred years.
There had been ‘an incredible lack of investigation’ into the possible influences of mind on body, the American hypnotist Leslie LeCron wrote in 1952. Many cases had been reported in the past, he said, in which major diseases had been relieved by hypnotic suggestion after conventional medicine had been tried without success. ‘It may be’, he concluded, ‘that the old-timers were right in their claims.’
In 1986, a major newspaper announced that ‘a pioneering medical hypnosis technique had enabled a woman to have a ‘miracle’ baby after no fewer than four miscarriages. The reader was given the impression that hypnosis had only just been discovered, although thirty years previously the authors of the textbook already mentioned devoted two chapters to ‘Hypnosis and Suggestion in Obstetrics’, citing a dozen references and noting that ‘accounts have been published of women who have never been able to give birth to a viable foetus, in spite of several pregnancies, but who have been able to do so with the help of appropriate hypnotherapy.’ As so often in the past two centuries, hypnosis had yet again been rediscovered.
‘Hypnosis is the black sheep of the family of problems which constitute psychology,’ according to psychologist Julian Jaynes, writing in 1976. ‘It wanders in and out of laboratories and carnivals and clinics and village halls like an unwanted anomaly. It never seems to straighten up and resolve itself into the firmer proprieties of scientific theory.’
This book is an attempt to help it do so. It is neither a history nor a manual of hypnosis. It is not an attack on conventional medicine. It is the record of a personal inquiry in which I look for answers to three questions: what is hypnosis, what are its limitations, and what are the implications of its full potential?
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published July 2011
Size: 229 x 152 mm