The Great American Water-Cure Craze

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Harry B. Weiss, The Great American Water-Cure Craze: A History of Hydropathy in the United States, (Trenton: The Past Times Press, 1967).

Harry Weiss’s work provides an excellent starting point for anyone trying to grasp what hydrotherapy was, when it was prominent, and who practiced and promoted it. The book is full of facts, images, dates, publications, and names that prove very useful for expanding on Weiss’s work. It was a bit strange to read a work of history that did not put forth a clear argument, but frankly, I sometimes wish more books were written this way. I suppose once the conversation has been started, however, it’s difficult to continue to produce more meaningful scholarship in this format.

Weiss makes an interesting and useful distinction between “hydropathy” and “hydrotherapy.” The former he associates with the earlier movement, commonly thought to be initiated by Austrian Vincent Priessnitz and characterized by strict adherence to routines (often involving a lot of exercise and various kinds of baths at strange hours), abstinence from stimulating food/drink, the exclusion of therapeutic drug use, and a vehement opposition to mainstream medicine. The latter, which emerged in the last decades of the 19th century, was less radical; most proponents were not only hydrotherapists, and they did not espouse a therapeutic strategy that relied exclusively on water. There was also more of an effort put forth by its main practitioners to provide a scientific foundation for the water’s efficacy and less of a tendency to denounce allopathic medicine. Instead, many of these men (and most of them were men — it seems the closer a sect associated with mainstream medicine, the less women were allowed in their midst) published in standard medical journals and associated with regular physicians.

Simon Baruch, M.D., provides an excellent example of this new kind of scientific hydrotherapist. He studied in Vienna under W. W. Winternitz, which is telling; I have seen in a couple of other places (Valenza, Taking the Waters in Texas and Weisz, “Spas, Mineral Waters, and Hydrological Science in Twentieth-Century France”) the contention that the effort to “scientize” hydrotherapy was far more prevalent in Europe than in the United States. In 1898, Baruch published The Principles and Practice of Hydrotherapy, A Guide to the Application of Water in Disease in New York.

“[It]…was written for students and practitioners of medicine, and represented the observations of Baruch who had gathered material for a third of a century from his private and hospital practice, together with the observations of other investigators. It includes a discussion of the application of water in its various forms, both internally and externally, and its mechanical and thermic action in disease. He thought ‘the nerve fibers and endings furnished a clue to that remarkable sensitiveness of the epidermic layer which opened to hydrotherapy a free gateway to the central nervous system,’ and believed in the ‘existence of active contrastibility upon the part of the muscular walls of the arteries and arterioles, and in a less degree of the veins and lymphatics, and of the capillary epithelium.’

“…Baruch studied the effects of hydriatic applications upon the distribution of the blood, upon blood pressures, upon changes in corpuscular elements, upon respiration and muscular systems, both in man and animals. Many case histories of cures by hydrotherapy are described. He deplored the neglect of the application of water in disease in America, characterizing it as ‘vague and timid until recent times.'” (66)

He evidently succeeded in his goal of bringing medical acknowledgement to hydrotherapy, as he served as professor of hydrotherapy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. (See if I can find the years of this, as Weiss does not give them?)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg also conducted extensive research into water’s use as a therapeutic agent, publishing a book on the subject — Rational Hydrotherapy. A Manual of the Physiological and Therapeutic Effects of Hydriatic Procedure, and the Technique of Their Application in the Treatment of Disease — in 1901. Kellogg operated a laboratory beginning in 1883, where he “began to make hundreds of observations with the aid of the calorimeter plethysmograph (for measuring variations in size of an organ or limb), ergograph (for recording work done by muscles), and other devices.” He classified the effects of water extensively — “excitant and sedative,” which were then “subdivided into primary and secondary, and then into general and local effects. The general effects he labeled as restorative, tonic and caloric, and the local effects as sudorific, diuretic, cholagogic, peptogenic, emmenagogic, revulsive, derivative, resolutive, alterative, and caloric.” (66-67) Kellogg also did not believe that water should be used exclusively in medical treatment, and he held that each disease required experience and knowledge on the part of the practitioner before a therapeutic strategy (water-based or otherwise) should be attempted.  (I have read elsewhere that Dr. Kellogg had a bit of an odd reputation toward the end of his life. Could this have affected the reception of his hydriatic studies?)

As hinted at earlier, Weiss provides a very helpful summary of water-cure journals, some of which I was pleased to find were published on into the late 1890s. I need to check out the “Herald of Health,” which ran from 1863-1892, and the same journal under a different title, “Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health,” which ran from 1893-1897. It’s unlikely I’ll find anything related to Arkansas in the journal, seeing as the state is completely excluded from Weiss’s book, but maybe I can get a feel for the periodical’s  relationship with mainstream medicine.

I do want to talk about how Arkansas was absent. I’m used to seeing only Hot Springs mentioned, but for the entire state to be absent is a bit strange. The entire last half of the book (the “Appendix”) is a state-by-state breakdown of what was going on with the water-cure. States covered include: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Territory (really?), Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota Territory, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York City and vicinity, New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Canada. This is an old book — published in 1967 — but Weiss read a lot of primary source material, and it worries me that he didn’t run across Arkansas once. Either my subject area is more isolated than I thought or I’ve found an oversight… I guess either way, it’s an interesting little lacuna I’ve stumbled across.


Hydropathic Highway to Health

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Jane B. Donegan, “Hydropathic Highway to Health”: Women and Water-Cure in Antebellum America. Contributions in Medical Studies, Number 17. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Checked out through OU’s Library. 

As often seems to be the case, Hyropathic Highway to Health offers a history of hydrotherapy intertwined with one of women’s health. Jane Donegan looks — primarily through a case study of New York practitioners and patients — at how the water-cure movement affected women’s health, their place in the medical profession, and to some extent their position in mid-19th century society as a whole. She does this through concentrating on medical education and theory, the changing ideas surrounding childbirth, and dress reform, comparing the way that hydrotherapists and allopaths handled these issues during a time of national sanitary and health movements.

What I found particularly interesting (and useful) for my research came in the beginning and the end. She describes the rise of sectarian medicine in the first chapter, situating hydrotherapy within the context of the backlash against heroic allopathic medicine of the early 19th century. She mentions the Parisian anatomo-pathological school and the inefficacy (and increased acknowledgement thereof) of age-old therapies as contributing factors toward the public’s distrust of allopathic medicine and turn toward less invasive therapeutical schools. (9-10) Her second chapter offers the best introduction to American hydrotherapy that I have yet to find — Joel and Marie Louise Shew and Russell Thatcher Trall all played important roles in bringing the water-cure to America from the epicenter of its 19th century revival in Austria. Donegan dates its introduction to America as being in the 1840s (3). I do wonder just how constrained to New York her work, and thus her conclusions, are.

Also of interest is the author’s breakdown of the education of prominent hydrotherapists and their communication networks. Many of the initial players (Shew and Trall, for instance) were trained traditionally and converted to hydrotherapeutics after acquiring their MDs. A few of the female practitioners also earned medical degrees from allopathic schools, although this proved challenging because these institutions often did not grant degrees to women. Many others were trained at a hydrotherapy school established in New York by the Nichols’s called the American Hydropathic Institute. It was later taken over by Trall and renamed the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College. Women were allowed and often counted for almost half of those attending. No mention is made of other schools. Throughout the book, Donegan cites the Water-Cure Journal, whose circulation is claimed to have been ~50,000 (191). I should probably read that, especially as a preliminary investigation has led me to believe it was published on into the ’70s.

Donegan’s detailed descriptions of the various therapies — focused though they are on childbirth — proved extremely helpful in understanding to what my sources from Eureka are referring when terms like “wrap” and “spitz bath” come up.

In the final chapter, Donegen states:

“Essentially unscientific and empirically based, hydropathy, in common with most of the irregular nineteenth-century medical sects, was unable to compete with orthodox medicine once the latter turned away from traditional theorizing about disease causation and began to move toward the clinical, scientific approach which would later characterize modern medicine.” (195)

I take issue with this and instead believe that hydrotherapy remained popular, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent, well into the 20th century. It adopted some changes along the way — emphasizing its more leisurely aspects, and most importantly for my work attempting to incorporate more scientific medicine into its theoretical bases. Perhaps, too, the location in which my study takes place has something to do with the continued interest in the water-cure. I wonder if the southern (or trans-Mississippi) United States experienced the fad later than the Northeast.


*The Water-Cure Journal (1845-1862) — (I think I’ve seen issues of this journal from a later date…)

Harriet N. Austin. Baths, and How to Take Them. Boston: B. Leverett Emerson, 1870.

Anita Clair Fellman and Michael Fellman. Making Sense of the Self: Medical Advice Literature in Late Nineteenth Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

John S. Haller Jr. American Medicine in Transition: 1840-1910. Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Guenter B. Risse, Ronald L. Numbers, and Judith Walzer Leavitt, eds. Medicine Without Doctors: Home Health Care in American History. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Alex Berman. “The Heroic Approach in 19th-Century Therapeutics,” pp. 77-86 in ^

*Harry B. Weiss and Howard R. Kemble. The Great American Water-Cure Craze: A History of Hydrotherapy in the United States. Trenton: Past Times Press, 1967.

*Marhsall Scott Legan. “Hydropathy in America: A Nineteenth Century Panacea.” Journal of the History of Medicine 45 (May-June 1971): 267-280.



Health & Water in the Middle Ages


Health and Water in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Survey

            As a requirement for life, water has enjoyed an interactive relationship with humanity through the ages, and this is no less true of the medieval era this survey will cover from about the ninth-century to the fifteenth AD. Because of its cleansing properties, symbolic associations, and the importance it is given in the Hippocratic and Galenic corpus, water has also often been associated with health — both as a healing agent itself and as a factor in the maintenance of the all-important equilibrium of the living body. It should come as a surprise, then, that the Anglophonic scholarship surrounding water and its role in medieval health can be best characterized as embryonic and fragmented, and certainly as lacking a developed methodological discourse or unity of approach.[1] Although calls have been made since the early twentieth-century for a more systematic analysis of medieval cleanliness, usage of and beliefs about water, and relationship with bathing and bathhouses, most scholars continue to focus on the early modern and modern periods.[2]