Science and the Construction of Health in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 1879-1906

Blog post, Papers

It is done, and it is online for anyone to read!

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a crisis in therapeutics as scientific developments overturned the theoretical underpinnings of humoral medicine, leaving room for lively and pluralistic discourses of health and healing. This thesis examines the controversies surrounding therapeutics in late nineteenth-century America through a microhistorical study of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a spa town developed in the late nineteenth century. Physicians, scientists, patients and town boosters all contributed to conversations about the healing properties of the natural springs that dot the landscape around Eureka Springs. Beginning in 1879 with Eureka’s founding, this work covers its establishment as a health resort by means of aggressive investment and advertising and traces the changes in rhetoric and language of the town’s promotional material and other ephemera through the early twentieth century. Its story, one peripheral but concurrent to that of mainstream medicine, makes clear that therapeutics, and by extension health, are constructed concepts, and that they are constantly being created by physicians, scientists, and the everyday person alike.

Writing my thesis was a journey–had some very good, and also some very bad moments–but I am so incredibly proud of the result. If you’d told me I would be citing Foucault in any piece of writing a year ago, I’d have laughed in your face. Thanks in large part to an incredible mentor, however, I ventured into the terrifying world of theory. And I found it to be a pretty powerful tool for framing my research and really digging in and answering some of the questions that have been gnawing at me since I started this project.

My masters defense was a bit bumpier than its undergraduate equivalent, but that’s to be expected. I got some useful advice and a couple new leads if I keep on hacking away at what could totally someday be a tenable dissertation topic… or a popular history book. Or just the subject of more blog posts. It’s all kind of up in the air right now, but I don’t think Eureka Springs will ever be out of my mind. It’s still magical and fascinating to me, which is the feeling I think most historians are chasing. You know you’ve found your topic when it doesn’t get boring, even after four years of digging and fussing over it.

I got asked to change the title of my work. It’s still a sore spot for me, and while I have the utmost respect for all of my committee members, this was one piece of advice (well… it was really a demand) that I couldn’t quite stomach. The finished product is recorded at OU with the title I was required to change it to, but it will always be “Science and the Construction of Health” in my heart. That’s what I will call it here, but you’ll notice a slightly different title in ShareOK.

I will be stringing together some thoughts soon around my work and what the conclusions I came to mean for current beliefs about health, wellness, and water. Turns out my brain isn’t just going to stagnate now that I’ve earned my degree and left university–woo! Stay tuned!

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.


TO READ FROM THE BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

*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.

 

 

Thesis Question Brainstorm

Blog post, Thesis Research

There are a few different directions I could go with my thesis at this point, and I think one of the best ways for me to work through them is to write them down and read them later. Here’s to hoping one of these sounds doable when I reread this in a couple of weeks.

I’m studying with some great professors here at OU, but most of them focus on the history of science, not medicine (and the two are very different fields — believe me). I was a little upset by this at first, but I think that ultimately I can use this as an advantage in writing this thesis and in my overall intellectual development as an historian.

I revisited some of the primary sources I’d been looking at, and this time I noticed how, especially as we reach the late 19th century, the arguments presented for why the waters healed were largely formulated with an appeal to science. Numbers — in the form of data like charts, percentages, and statistics of other kinds — began to appear, and the experts behind their development were emphasized (professors at universities in St. Louis, physicians who trained at prominent medical schools). Did the inclusion of more scientific arguments for the efficacy of the waters reflect a growing trust in medical science? If so, what engendered this trust? What role did scientific medicine play in the choices vernacular audiences made in regards to their health decisions, and was this in a state of accelerated change at the end of the 19th century?

I can also see some major boundary-work going on in my primary source base. It seems that what was considered “medicine” and what wasn’t was in a state of heightened ambivalence at the end of the 19th century and on into the 20th. The backlash initiated by the realization that age-old “heroic” therapeutics — based largely around violent purgatives and emetics — were not effective rendered medical authority questionable. Could the rise of hydrotherapy be indicative of the uncertainty that surrounded the therapeutics of the era? Is it evidence that…? Is it also a reaction against the lack of agency patients were beginning to see in the more cold, clinical doctor-patient relationship that was characteristic of the “new” medicine, based as it was on the numerical analysis of disease and cure?

I keep coming back to the role that statistics and numbers seem to have played in the changing location of trust in medicine. Without statistical evidence to the contrary, patients placed their full trust in their doctor and the immediate effects of his treatment. As statistical methods made their way into medicine, however, patients had to decide where to place their faith — with the family doctor, who often gave them more agency in their own medical decisions, or with a new and increasingly numerous class of physicians that, backed by the authority of science, advocated new methods, new characterizations of disease, and espoused new therapeutical strategies. Personal experience and agency vs. scientific expertise and delegation of medical responsibility.

I’m considering dropping the micro-historical approach and instead focusing on a few different spa towns. Is that a stupid idea for something as short as a masters thesis? Hm.

I tried to come up with a witty, history-sounding title for this post and failed, which is further evidence that I’m far, far too broad in my research interests here. Sigh.