Hydropathic Highway to Health

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.




“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

Routes of Power

Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, Christopher F. Jones

            In his study of shifting power regimes in industrializing America, Christopher Jones emphasizes the importance of transportation networks in the formation of an “energy-intensive world.” Jones covers the time period from 1820, when citizens garnered their energy in an organic way (using primarily plants, falling water, and wind, all derivatives of solar energy), through to 1930, when the transition to a mineral-based energy was completed (coal, oil, and electricity covering most of Americans’ energy needs). The effects of such a transition are highlighted and include the proliferation of larger cities with concentrated industrial output, energy’s correlation with cost instead of labor, and communities’ differing degrees of inauguration into the new energy regime with various consequences. In each chapter, the author emphasizes transportation networks — canals, railroads, pipelines, and wires — and their role in creating “landscapes of intensification” that created the demand that would sustain the transformation from an organic to a mineral energy regime.

Both Christopher Jones and David Nye in America as Second Creation discussed the role of the booster in garnering support for the usage of new technologies; these men obviously played a major role in encouraging the usage and the overall proliferation of novel technological feats. I find their presence often in works dealing with medical speculation as well, such as James Harvey Young’s Toadstool Millionaires, which discusses the rise of patent medicines in nineteenth century America. I wonder if there have been any studies of these men; what motivated them, and were they a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon? They probably maintained a relatively precarious existence, because new technologies harbored grave risks for investors (and those touting their benefits) if a society did not see their value. What about the nineteenth century made these men so visible, and how did they influence the course of American industrialization? Was their participation needed, even inevitable?

I also found it fascinating how influential seemingly unrelated historico-political factors were in the inauguration of certain technologies into common usage. Susan B. Pritchard’s Confluence analyzes how the techno-manipulation of the Rhône was discussed in a nationalistic, conquering language, and how its goals reflected France’s attempts to legitimize itself after a humiliating defeat at the hands of its rivals. Similarly, the way that canals were built in America was influenced by the way that Americans saw themselves at the time; large-scale federal governmental involvement was discouraged at a time when republicanism dominated. Investors, then, and state charters decided the course and language of construction. Technology, both authors’ books discuss, is affected by social and political factors, just as it has effects on both.

Something I found particularly interesting was the way that mass commodification and physical distance between sites of energy production and sites of energy consumption has affected people’s relationship with energy. No longer something that must be earned through hard labor, energy can be purchased; this has changed the way that people use energy. This distance between production and consumption, I think, was a product of industrialization and mass production and can be seen in many other aspects of society. Medical knowledge, for example, has been standardized and delegated to a certain class of people, and most patients do not care to look into the technicalities of their diseases. They leave their lives completely in a doctor’s hands. The distance between the producer of medical knowledge, the doctor, and the consumer, the patient, has increased as the language of disease has become more technical and the technologies of diagnostics more specialized. Before medicine had been commodified and, more importantly, standardized, people played a much more active role in their health decisions. The commodification and standardization of energy consumption has had similar effects; people delegate their energy needs to others to the extent that they know almost nothing about its production. Commodification and standardization, then, create distance between producers and consumers. I wonder what sorts of ramifications this has, and especially what sorts of exploitation has resulted from it.