Chemistry, Medicine, and the Legitimization of English Spas, 1740-1840

Christopher Hamlin, “Chemistry, Medicine, and the Legitimization of English Spas, 1740-1840,” Medical History, Supplement No. 10 (1990): 67-81.

Hamlin, much like he does in A Science of Impurity, discusses the role of chemistry in the legitimization of health spas. He argues that their domination of the conversation was not due to any sort of revolution in techniques — there were actually a lot of widely recognized problems with analyzing mineral waters — but due to a myriad of factors that included the rise of the profession as a whole and individual chemists’ abilities to assert their ability to explain scientifically and objectively the concrete reasons for different spas’ medical effects.

“Then as now, the appeal to science was grounded in the presumption that it gave access to an objective reality. The effects of a spring whose contents and activity could be accounted for need no longer be tied to the fragile subjectivity of an individual patient, an advantage both to the proprietor of the spring, who then had grounds of guaranteeing the water’s effects, and to the patient, who (at least if he or she accepted the naturalistic ideology that went along with science) might then have greater reason to believe the cure was real.” (68)

Hamlin distinguishes between two different arguments for springs’ efficacy. One, an older version that died out in the 19th century, held that each spring was “conceived as a complicated and changing mixture including a watery principle, various dissolved and suspended salts and earths, a spirit, the ‘life’ or ‘soul’ of the water was called, that transcended analysis or capture.” This was expounded by Friedrich Hoffmann. (71) Even after the rise of pneumatic chemistry, the argument was still being made; “Compositional chemistry was far too feeble an instrument to discover either the true nature of a mineral water or the complicated relations between the water, the circumstances of taking it, and the individual’s constitution that together accounted for medical effectiveness.” (72)
This argument sounds a lot like the pre-1890s arguments for the springs’ efficacy. Science can’t explain it! Chemistry can’t explain it! We know it’s true from testimonials, and that’s good enough.

The rise of pneumatic chemistry in the mid-eighteenth century gave analytical chemists of mineral water explanatory power that greatly increased their ability to analyze and explain the effects of the waters. This provided chemistry with a new authority which “threaten[ed] the equilibrium of charges and rebuttals by representing a neutral and common standard against which claims could be evaluated.” (72) “…by determining the differing effects of spring with different compositions, one could work out the pharmacological properties of each of the different components… one made pharmacological inferences from chemical facts, and pharmacological possibility was therefore reducible to chemistry.” (73)
This argument sounds like later ads. Chemistry tells us that our water is pure, unique, and medically effective; the best analytical chemists can confirm!

Hamlin argues that chemistry came into its own right (“rather than as a collection of medical and technological services that chemists offered for sale”) in the 19th century due to its “rapidly growing importance, a result of the spread of the French chemistry of Lavoisier, the launching of the heavy chemicals industry, and the discovery through electrochemistry of numerous elements…” (77-8)

“Wiht far more unanimity in methods and concepts, and growing loyalty to the profession, chemists were able to promote the idea that mineral water assessment was inherently the business of the science of chemistry, no matter how inadequate for that purpose its capabilities might currently be.” (78)



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