The Great American Water-Cure Craze

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.



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