Medical Heresy in the Nineteenth Century: Women and the Water Cure

 by Gene Franks

Health and bodily perfectionism might be the ultimate metaphors for self-determination and choice amid cultural uncertainty and upheaval; they do indeed yield a self-directed, life-giving, empowering vision. Now, as then, health may be one of the few arenas in which a utopian, perfectionist ideal can be sought and–for given moments–realized.–Susan E. Cayleff, Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement in Women’s Health. 


Editor/Publisher/Writer’s Note: The article that follows is twice-recycled. It appeared first in a paper version in Pure Water Gazette #22, October, 1989, then was improved and expanded for paper publication in Gazette #47, Fall, 1997.  The present version, improved, I hope,  dates from the Spring of 2001.  The pictures are from a magazine article published a century and a half ago.

I think you’ll be surprised at how the current upsurge of popularity of alternative healing systems had its exact parallel in pre-Civil War America. You may be surprised, too, at how little the “regulars,” or allopathic doctors, have changed their ways in the century and a half they’ve been “practicing” since the days described in the article.  The Bleed, Purge, and Poison strategy of Antebellum “heroic” medicine isn’t all that different from today’s Slash, Burn, and Poison style. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the French say.  The more things change, the more they stay forever the same.–Gene Franks.

A century and a half ago, one of America’s most hazardous professions was that of the affluent housewife. Freed from the necessity to contribute to family income, many ladies of the leisure class inherited the role of petted, over-protected dolls–overfed on rich and highly refined foods, inactive, and extremely unhealthy. Among their worst enemies were the dressmaker and the doctor.

Fashion was such a burden to health that reformer Lydia Sayer Hasbrouk liked to say, “Dress reform to us is synonymous with health reform.” In an effort to achieve the appearance of an unnaturally narrow waist, women were wrapped in “misery-making machines” consisting of tightly-laced corsets stiffened with whalebones and steel splints. These caused pain in the chest, abdomen, and pelvis, and probably contributed to miscarriages and premature births. Many women suffered deformed ribs and chronic shortness of breath. Equally oppressive was the effort to achieve a “tea cosy effect” by wearing six, eight, or more heavy underskirts weighing up to 15 pounds and supported by strings drawn so tightly that they left visible indentations even after death.

Although fashion was hideous, doctors were a more immediate threat. Pre-Civil War doctors treated women, one writer of the time said, like “ignorant children who must be guided by their betters–especially by their physicians.”

For middle- and upper-class women, pregnancy, parturition (as childbirth was called), and postpartum complications were the leading health concerns. Seeking to replace midwives as birthing attendants, doctors waged a systematic campaign–a campaign still much in evidence today–to turn childbirth into a medical problem. As Jane Donegan explains in Hydropathic Highway to Health:

Although then as now, the vast majority of births were uncomplicated, doctors stressed the potential hazards that accompanied every normal case. They capitalized on their medical training to emphasize their claim–not always founded in fact–that only with their assistance could childbearing be transformed into a safer, shorter, and less terrifying event. In the process, physicians redefined parturition. What had once been regarded as a natural physiological function eventually became a pathological condition requiring the physician’s scientific management.

The “scientific management” of childbirth came to be standard fare of the medical system known as “heroic medicine,” which was practiced by “regular” doctors, or allopaths.  Heroic medicine featured an invasive, aggressive attack on disease, relying on such weapons as bloodletting (by way of venesection, or opening of the veins, applying leeches, and cupping) and massive drugging.

The process of procreation was in general shrouded in secrecy, and the information that women got from doctors was less than perfect. Doctors advised, for example, that conception was most likely to occur during menstruation and was least likely during the period we now know as ovulation. It is no wonder that women seemed to be eternally pregnant.

Doctors believed, too, that the cessation of menstruation during pregnancy indicated a problem needing heroic intervention. Bloodletting was the logical cure. Bleeding weakened the “patient” and lent support to the notion that pregnancy was a disease requiring medical treatment. A respected specialist in uterine diseases in 1858 taught medical students to insert leeches into the womb even though he admitted that the practice “could induce a paroxysm of almost intolerable suffering.” Exercise was discouraged, and even young women became virtual invalids during pregnancy and for weeks or months after childbirth.

The famous physician Benjamin Rush defined childbearing as “a disease taking the form of a clonic spasm” and recommended venesection and medicating with opium. Bloodletting, in fact, became the standard treatment for most of the “symptoms” of pregnancy, including morning sickness, swelling of the hands, wrists, and face, headache and vertigo. Doctors even sought to control hemorrhage with bloodletting, theorizing, according to Jane Donegan, that “bleeding a woman [until she was unconscious] would temporarily reduce circulation and encourage her blood to clot.” This practice often led to temporary blindness and prolonged periods of weakness.

Another standard treatment for the disease of childbearing was ergot, a powerful drug used to “excite uterine contractions,” thus inducing labor. Much abused by inexperienced physicians (and some doctors of the time began practice in obstetrics without having so much as witnessed a childbirth), ergot, in the words of one doctor,  left a trail of “ruptured uteri, deadborn children, puerperal convulsions, and widowered husbands.”  The problem was that when given prematurely–as often happened–ergot stimulated forceful uterine contractions that could rupture the uterus or destroy the fetus by forcing it against the undilated cervix.

While many other problems attributable to medical treatment could be discussed, such as mercury poisoning and the spread of infection, it is enough to say that by the middle of the nineteenth century women’s health in America was in a deplorable state. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made an informal survey of over 1,000 women in 79 communities and found that the sick outnumbered the well by a ratio of three to one. Mrs. Beecher commented: “I am not able to recall, in my immense circle of friends and acquaintances all over the Union, so many as ten married ladies born in this century and country, who are perfectly sound, healthy, and vigorous.”

         Mrs. Beecher’s suggested remedies  for women’s poor health were three: dress reform, vigorous exercise,  and participation in the water cure.

Hydropathy, The Water Cure

                The science of hydropathy, or the water cure, developed as one of the several heretical therapeutic systems that arose to offer alternatives to heroic treatment. Water therapy is based on the reasonable belief that water is the natural sustainer of life and therefore possesses varied and powerful curative properties. Water therapy has a long and interesting history, but here it is convenient to say that nineteenth century hydropathy began with a medically untrained Austrian named Vincent Priessnitz, who developed the essentials of the system while treating himself for, and recovering fully from the effects of what doctors had deemed an “incurable” accident.

In 1826 Priessnitz opened a water cure establishment at Grafenberg in the mountains of Silesia. It was an immediate success and, known as the “Water University,” became a model for many similar establishments in Europe and  America.

The Priessnitz treatment, which centered on water, air, exercise, and diet, was quickly acclaimed for its effectiveness. Priessnitz’ success was explained by Susan Cayleff:

Retrospectively, his success stemmed from removing his patients from the stresses  and excesses that had often induced their illnesses, providing a pleasant communal setting, implementing diet and exercise regimens that strengthened the body, ceasing heroic therapeutics, letting nature help right what was reversible, involving patients in their own cure through habit reformation, and applying the mystical healing powers attributed to Priessnitz’ personality.

The water cure centers stressed plenty of rest, moderate living in all respects, outdoor exercise, a spare and wholesome, often vegetarian diet, avoidance of drugs and invasive medical treatments, and the internal and external use of pure water as a purifying and curative agent. Their success, especially when compared with heroic treatment, would seem inevitable.

Hydropathy spread quickly in America. According to one account, 213 cure centers were established between 1843 and 1900. Although most treated both sexes, the centers were especially popular with women; and women, who had long been denied access to the “regular” medical field, not only gained acceptance but took the lead as water-cure physicians.

The advancement of women as health practitioners was strongly advocated by the very influential Water Cure Journal,  a publication that from 1845 through the 1850s promoted hydropathy as well as the related issues of temperance, women’s rights, and dress and medical reform. The Journal also proclaimed gynecological medicine to be hydropathy’s main concern.  In an age of exaggerated modesty, the Journal addressed such forbidden topics as abortion, the frequency of sexual intercourse, masturbation, and barrenness.  “In all these matters,” Kathryn Kish Sklar writes, “hydropathy lived up to its claim to be the friend of nineteenth-century women. Its sympathy for the special medical problems of women stood in stark contrast to the hostility and indifference characteristic of traditional contemporary medicine.”

Hydropathy presented a totally fresh approach to childbirth, denying that it was a disease, as the allopaths seemed to believe,  or that it was of necessity excruciatingly painful because it was God’s punishment for Eve’s sin, as many believed. Water curists taught that excessive pain in childbirth was unnatural and unnecessary–the result of poor health. They stressed extensive exercise and proper diet during pregnancy and the relaxing effects of free movement and warm-water baths during labor. Perhaps the most startling result of hydropathic parturition was that women found they could be up and about a few days after delivery. With the scientific management of allopathy, two months of invalidism after delivery was not uncommon.

The main message of the water-cure centers to women, though, was the revolutionary premise that “a woman’s body belonged to herself–not to her doctor, not to her children, and not to her husband.”

The cures themselves involved a regulated, wholesome lifestyle and the liberal use of water both internally and externally. Priessnitz urged patients to drink 20 to 30 glasses of water per day to induce internal cleaning, and no other beverage was permitted. A variety of bathing techniques were used to promote general cleansing and to address specific problems. The most commonly used treatment was the wet-sheet pack. In this “bath, ” the patient was wrapped in a mummy-like encasement consisting of a sheet dipped in cold water and four blankets. Additional covers were added until the patient perspired freely. The patient was then removed from the wrapping and plunged into a cold bath. A doctor described the therapeutic effect as follows:

When the pure water of the wet sheet came into contact with the skin the impure water of the blood on the inside of the skin passed through the skin into the water of the wet sheet while pure water of the wet sheet passed through the skin to supply the place of the impure water.  An interchange took place.

From the patient’s viewpoint, the wetsheet wrap was less scientific. Here’s a poem written by a patient named Carrie May at the Saratoga Water-Cure in 1857:

First they wrap you closely

In a dripping sheet.

A bottle of hot water

Is then placed at your feet:

Blanket after blanket

Wrap around your form,

Comfortables in plenty,

Keep you nicely warm: . . .

Acting like an opiate,

Easing all your pain,

Calming down your bounding pulse,

Cooling off your brain.

Puts you in a slumber,

Gives you dreams of bliss,

Naught is any Treatment

Is so nice as this. . .

Whatever the curative effects, the “dreams of bliss” described by Carrie May sound a lot better than having your blood drained by leeches or lancet.

The water-cure centers had a profound effect on American health and American thinking. They served as rallying points for many divergent ideas–from women’s rights and dress reform to dietary and hygienic instruction. The people involved with the cures were for the most part far ahead of their time.

Water-cure doctors, for example, consistently stressed the importance of a spare, meat-free diet. They were forerunners, with hygienists like Sylvester Graham (the man Graham Crackers were named after), of the gradual but steady rise of vegetarianism. Similarly, the water Purists’ successes with drug-free, noninvasive treatment have certainly opened doors in the public mind for the gentler and increasingly popular “alternative” therapies of today. Above all, the hydropathists reminded us of the inseparable relationship that exists between good health and pure water.

Every age considers itself the peak of civilization and loves to point a finger at its ancestors’ follies. From our vantage point, heroic medicine’s reliance on bloodletting seems naive and outrageous.

We should not forget that bloodletting was not a medical fad but the dominant medical strategy for many years. Hundreds and hundreds of years. Many current medical practices, even some that are strongly established as medical tradition, will seem equally absurd to future generations. Certainly the aggressive tactics of modern cancer therapy will be the shame of our age. The shame lies not only in the total failure of the much touted “War on Cancer” (which the medical establishment will continue to wage as long as we are gullible enough to pay for it so lavishly), but equally in the boldfaced suppression of successful alternative therapies. For example, the FDA persecution of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, whose antineoplaston therapy has proven to be not only highly effective but also totally free of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, is a black page in our history. That one must travel to Mexico to receive the well-documented advantages of the totally natural and harmless Gerson therapy is equally shameful. Dr. Julian Whitaker, editor of Health & Healing  newsletter and a practicing physician, avoids cancer treatment because of the political climate. He writes:

Given our dismal track record in treating cancer, you’d think that the medical establishment would be open to alternatives. However, it is exactly the opposite. Cancer generates billions of dollars, and the financial interests involved work tirelessly to influence government to outlaw alternatives and eliminate your choice. In the state of California, as well as others, it is illegal to treat cancer with anything but surgery, radiation or chemotherapy!

I do not, as a rule, treat cancer patients. My reasons for this are very simple. I do not live in Mexico, and I do not want to go to jail. If the environment was less oppressive, I would open the doors for cancer, and regardless of what I did, I’m convinced that it would be at least as successful as what is being done now. . .

I look upon cancer in the same way that I look upon heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, and even obesity, for that matter, in that by dramatically strengthening the body’s immune system through diet, nutritional supplements, and exercise, the body can rid itself of the cancer, just as it does other degenerative diseases. Consequently, I wouldn’t have chemotherapy and radiation because I’m not interested in therapies that cripple the immune system, and, in my opinion, virtually insure failure for the majority of cancer patients.

Other customs that will certainly earn  us the derision of future generations  include our naive over-reliance on vaccination and the equally outrageous adoption by modern medicine of the religious ritual of circumcision. Circumcision made the jump from superstition to medical treatment simply because it is profitable.

It will be a happy day for men when circumcision finds its final resting place on the scrap heap of medical bad ideas.

A single scrap heap will not be large  enough to hold the medical atrocities against women. Certainly the problems of childbirth have not diminished with modern medical management of pregnancy, and the “regulars”  continue to wage war against  midwives.  As Dr. Robert Mendelsohn pointed out in Confessions of a Medical Heretic, the Church of Modern Medicine still views women as second-class creatures. Pregnancy is still treated as if it  were a disease. The bag of tricks has new gadgets, but the result is the same. Dr. Mendelsohn writes:

                If you’re pregnant, you go to the doctor and he treats you as if you’re sick. Childbirth is a nine-month disease which  must be treated, so you’re sold on intravenous fluid bags, fetal monitors a host of drugs, the totally unnecessary episiotomy, and–the top of the line product–the caesarean birth!

The U.S. now ranks second only to Brazil in the percentage of Caesarean births. Our Caesarean birth rate grew from 5% in 1962 to 23% in 1992. That’s progress!