Water Cures and Science

George Weisz, “Water Cures and Science: The french Academy of Medicine and Mineral Waters in the Nineteenth Century,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no. 3 (1990): 393-416.

In this piece, Weisz discusses institutional and individual attempts in nineteenth century France to place mineral waters and the therapies that involved them on a biomedical, statistical, and chemical foundation of therapeutic efficacy. He argues that the different way in which spa therapies are understood, utilized, and supported in Europe versus in North America is due to the medical and scientific fields’ support of hydrotherapy in the former, where it is largely absent in the latter.

“Water cures in North America were largely an entrepreneurial activity with limited links to public health authorities and even less to academic medicine.” (394)
He doesn’t cite anything here, so I wonder from where he has gathered this impression. Not that I disagree, but it’d be nice to see where this is discussed elsewhere.

The French Academy of Medicine was put in charge of “authorizing” mineral waters in the 19th century “on the basis of chemical analyses carried out in the Academy’s laboratory.” They didn’t make judgements on the therapeutic efficacy/action of the waters, but just looked at what was in it and compared it to other well-known spots. (396) They added bacterial analyses by the end of the 19th century. (397)

The organization had a branch of inspectors whose job it was to “study scientifically the properties of local waters, to supervise the medical functioning of spas, to suggest improvements to appropriate authorities, and to provide free medical care to indigents.” Their role changed in emphasis from statistics-gathering to the production of original scientific research as the century wore on. (398)

The reports they submitted were gathered, cross-referenced, and published by the Academy yearly (though this was sometimes poorly done and late). “…the aim was to set down information in a logical manner so that correlations among what we would call variables could be made visible. The key question in this case was the extent to which a particular water could be shown to be especially effective against particular diseases or conditions. The goal was to determine each water’s therapeutic specificity…” (398-99)
This is the exact kinda thing that’s going on in climatology. Woot woot!

Weisz spends some time discussing how the reports and the scientific validity they gave the waters were a source of medical authority for the Academy over mineral waters. They advocated for legislation that would prevent people from using the waters without the aid of a physician (this failed — legislation in the early 1860s made waters free to use for anyone).

Spa proprietors were understood as greedy; “the only counterbalance to commercial greed was medical authority.”
Since there was little medical authority in ES, this may explain why the spa industry didn’t take off in America like it did on the continent. Capitalists were permitted to make outrageous claims, and nothing was regulated — they became untrustworthy as medicine scientized. They tried to jump on the bandwagon of scientific legitimacy, but the commercial aspects of their endeavor were too pronounced. Too many unsustainable claims. Trust (particularly of the thin variety, I’d imagine) is a ruthless balancing act. 

The Academy believed that “[t]he prosperity of the spa industry would be ensured if the applications of water cures could be determined scientifically; if a degree of therapeutic specificity were to be established physicians could be made fully to understand the range of conditions for which each water was useful. Explaining the actual mechanisms through which waters acted on the body might be part of this task, but it was secondary to the precise determination of therapeutic efficacy.” (402-3)
This focus on empirical evidence over explanatory theory may have sustained therapeutics through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but as bacteriology, pharmaceutical chemistry, and other sciences provided a mechanistic (word choice?) explanation, this kind of mass evidence based on “subjective” experience would cease to be as convincing.

Weisz spends some time discussing the difficulties in establishing the extent of therapeutic efficacy; do you take a clinical approach? The variables are very difficult to isolate, particularly for hydrotherapy, where many things are at play. Clinical testing strategies were also in their infancy. The laboratory is another strategy (that became increasingly popular as time wore on), but it is even more reductionist and restrictive. How could you conduct a laboratory test on the community healing aspect of a health spa?

Details attempts at establishing hospitals and laboratories near spa towns, which don’t seem to have happened.

“Chemistry was in certain respects hydrology’ main claim to rigorous scientific status…” though there was some tension between “chemistry adn clinical therapeutics.”

Discusses the case of Forges-les-Bains, a site where chemical testing indicated that the waters had very little mineral content (like Eureka Springs!). The Academy authorized the waters anyway, citing the history of therapeutic efficacy. This was an instance in which, Weisz argues, “…the primacy of therapeutic effects over chemical analysis was affirmed.” (406)
Idea for the conclusion of my thesis (in which I plan to briefly speak on why spa therapies did not take off in America): the fact that Eureka Springs did pretty well despite chemical analyses proving no active agents speaks to the weakness of chemical/hydrological science in the US. 

On data collection, which Hamlin also discusses –
“Collecting data, on the model of public health statistics, seemed in fact one of the few ways to ridge the gap between chemistry and therapeutics by permitting the Academy to utilize inspectors’ reports in order to process these two types of knowledge into data that might conceivably show clear relationships between chemical composition and the healing of particular diseases.”
Hamlin details this same process in England; he refers to it as an attempt, in the Baconian vein, to gather voluminous information about something in order to subsequently construct an underlying theory. I wonder if this was going on in America as well, or if chemistry wasn’t well established enough or interested in different kinds of questions than therapeutics or mineral waters? This could also help shed light on the question of why hydrotherapy didn’t do well in America. If its handmaiden, chemistry, wasn’t organized, authoritative or interested enough to provide solid medical legitimacy, especially considering the active role it played in establishing the science of hydrology in France… there’s no way it could compete with other therapeutic systems. 

Weisz argue that the Academy “helped keep hydrology alive as a scientific speciality in the nineteenth century and invested it with whatever prestige the Academy itself possessed. It also produced a body of medical writing that pretty much confirmed the belief in the efficacy of water cures.” (415)
I don’t think hydrotherapy/hydrology/climatology had similar institutional support. This would be a good argument to make at the end of chapter two; cite the differential in university appointments and commmittees in public health and other government bodies that concern mineral water, hydrotherapy, hydrology, climatology, etc. 

“The scientific effort expended on mineral waters…has in the final analysis been most significant because it has made a clear statement that water cures are valuable enough to be the object of such interest by the medical elite. In so doing, it has helped keep this therapy within orthodox medicine (though far from the center), in spite of the fat that it does not conform easily to the dominant models of scientific explanation.” (416)

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Science of the Marginalized: Women in the Age of Scientific Authority

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a transformation in the status of scientific authority. With authority comes power, and with power comes the ability to dictate what is inside the realm of value and acceptability and what lies outside of that constructed space. When scientific disciplines and the respected members of those disciplines began to gain cohesion and recognizable authority, they began to make distinctions between what and who was and was not a part of their research programs and acceptable practices. Members of the scientific community especially susceptible to exclusion were (and are) those who had historically been viewed as outsiders — the most studied groups being women and people of color.[1] In this essay, I will examine how this systematic marginalization at various points in science’s ascension to greater and greater political, cultural, and intellectual authority has changed the way that women have practiced science, paying special attention to how the subjects of study and questions asked by female scientists are centered around different issues than their male colleagues. A similar study on African American science would be equally valuable but would extend the breadth of this essay beyond what I can reasonably discuss.

Maria Mitchell’s successful career as an astronomer spanned the middle third of the nineteenth century and provides an excellent point of departure. Born in 1818, her training and early work took place in the context of a scientific community still quite fragmented; the big names that would contribute to science’s nineteenth century prestige — Charles Darwin, James Clark Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur — were a development of mid-century. As her biographer Renée Bergland argues, Mitchell established herself as a scientist at a time when “studying science was ‘womanly,’ safely outside the potentially dangerous ideological realms of law or history or theology.”[2]

Lack of ideological authority placed science in a space that, at the time, was acceptable for females to interact within, and Mitchell’s science reflected her acceptance into the community. Like her male colleagues, she scanned the night sky for comets and made her entrance into the astronomical discourse with her discovery of one in 1847.[3] She was given credit for it and felt that she could become “a woman scientist… who could chart out her own course of research,” unlike her heroine Caroline Herschel who constantly diverted credit to her brother.[4] She acquired a job as the computer of Venus and published her astronomical work in various journals.[5] Mitchell was thus a scientist in her own rite, asking her own questions that reflected her relatively secure position within the discipline of astronomy. She needed neither to justify her participation in knowledge-production nor rely on a man’s help to solidify her position in the community.

Major changes were soon to alter the situation for women in science, however. Around the 1860s, America was professionalizing on many fronts, and science too felt this pull. With their newfound authority, professional scientists began to relocate the practice of science to the university — an institution from which women were usually excluded.[6] They also began to construct a view of the scientist that was uniquely male in order to further assert their professional authority. Women practitioners, they thought, would weaken their professional image.[7] Authority, institutionalization, and increased disciplinary cohesion (brought on by advances in theory and methodology) thus gave a particular class of scientist — advantaged by their social and economic position — the power to create spaces of exclusion that left whole sections of the community outside of scientific discourse. This would have profound implications for female scientists and their work in the twentieth century.

One such scientist was Helen Thompson Woolley. Born in 1874, she would face a far different scientific environment than Maria Mitchell. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her research on sex differences; her thesis “compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests,” and her subsequent research and reviews centered on the same issues surrounding gender differentials in mental capacities.[8] Her frustration with contemporary scholarship on sex differences is evident in Psychological Literature: A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex, where she reviews recent work and, in a powerful and convincing conclusion, repudiates scientifically many of the arguments made by male scientists for why females do not belong in their profession. “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here,” she states in a particularly ardent passage.

Woolley was fighting against the current that was sweeping many of her female colleagues out of science and into domesticity, and her research reflects her tenuous position. She chose to pursue issues related to her gender’s capacity to reason, and by extent to participate in knowledge-creation. Instead of engaging with other lines of inquiry in her field at the time, Woolley chose to hone in on one in which she had a vested interest; the scientific community’s consensus on whether females were intellectually on par with men would have a direct effect on Woolley’s ability to assert her own authority within her discipline. Therefore, because of the authoritative exclusion of her gender from science, Woolley’s research took on a very particular identity — one connected to her identification as a marginalized professional scientist and one based on legitimizing her participation in scientific discourse.

We have now seen how two female scientists’ work differed before and after the marked rise of scientific authority. Maria Mitchell pursued her own interests, relatively unaffected by her role as a female scientist. Helen Thompson Woolley, on the other hand, pursued a research program that attempted to authorize her participation in science; her identity as a woman in science played a central role in her research interests. As the twentieth century wore on, the situation for women in science improved only marginally. Two more scientists’ work will now elucidate how scientific authority has continued to marginalize women and thus inform their research agendas.

Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector founded a new field in archaeology — the archeology of gender — in 1984 with a groundbreaking article. In it, they highlighted the propensity for archeologists to make gendered assumptions about past populations. Conkey and Spector found that archeologists maintained gender biases when interpreting symbolism and explaining divisions of labor and social hierarchies, and their solution was to begin “a systematic program of feminist research on questions about women and gender.”[9] While it took seven years for anyone to act on their criticism, conferences began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Wylie links the increasing interest in feminist archeology to “a parallel, and, in most areas, antecedent interest in questions about the roles, status, and contributions of women in archeology.”[10]
In this late twentieth century scenario, female archeologists drew attention to the gender biases rampant in their field. This kind of research was different from Helen Woolley’s in that it did not attempt to legitimize the female in general as a potential authority within a discipline; while female archeologists still suffer from unequal treatment in academia, they had at least affirmed their right to be there (more or less) by the 1980s. Conkey and Spector did, however, wage war against the gender biases still inherent in archeological analytical techniques, pointing out that contemporary methodologies were problematic. Perhaps they pursued these research interests because, as women within a scientific framework that was still masculinized in method, they remained outsiders. The authority of male archeologists, so ingrained in the profession, was still implicit in the way that archeology is practiced. While the role of women in science has improved overall, the barriers to equitably assigned intellectual value have remained strong, though often implicit.

Thus, while scientific authority has come with many benefits, it has also provided the impetus for marginalizing some with effects on the kinds of research they conduct. While I by no means am attempting to make the deterministic argument that all women in science have conducted gender-influenced research — that would be over-simplistic — I am, however, asserting that scientists’ work is profoundly impacted by the socio-scientific environment in which they practice, and the marginalization that has resulted from centralized scientific authority has had implications for some women’s work. I think this idea could be further researched and expanded to include other groups on the fringes; perhaps a comparison of the work produced by scientists occupying different positions in the institutional hierarchy would prove fruitful. In any case, as we have seen, different levels of authority from various time periods have produced distinct research agendas. For women scientists, mounting scientific authority has not always resulted in their work being taken more seriously, and it has left a distinctive mark on their research.

[1] By studied, I mean in the discipline of the history of science. These are two obvious examples, but the list goes on and on: those with disabilities, with alternative religious orientations (even as science’s power was eclipsing that of religion), homosexuals (i.e., Alan Turing), foreigners (some more threatening than others), etc.

[2] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xvi.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6]Ibid, 156-157.

[7] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, 174.

[8] Katharine S. Milar, “An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women,” Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collections, accessed November 18, 2016, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Special/Women/characteristics.htm.

[9] Alison Wylie, “Doing Social Science as a Feminist: The Engendering of Archaeology,” in Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine, eds. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 24.

[10] Ibid, 25.