Excerpted from Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine by Erika Janik, out now from Beacon Press.
Today, when it seems that most Americans carry a water bottle to drink their eight daily glasses, the importance of water to health seems obvious. But for 19th-century hydropaths, water was more than just a sugar- and calorie-free drink: It was a social good able to cure nearly every disease as well as the social and cultural ills that threatened the health and stability of the nation.
Drinking was not the only way to enjoy water’s munificence, though; water was also to be experienced through elaborate rituals of bathing, showering, soaking, sweating, and wrapping. This diversity of baths, not to mention the idea of bathing itself, was highly unusual for most Americans. In 1835, a letter from a reader in the Boston Moral Reformer asked, “I have been in the habit during the past winter of taking a warm bath every three weeks. Is this too often to follow the year round?” Although it offered cures for disease, hydropathy functioned more as a water-based lifestyle plan with a vision of radically transforming the world through personal health achieved through nature’s purest substance.
Hydropathy grew out of the observations and experiments of Vincent Priessnitz. A peasant born in 1799 on a farm in Grafenberg in Silesian Austria, located in today’s Czech Republic, Priessnitz discovered water’s potential as a cure-all after an 1816 farm accident. One day while he was baling hay, a runaway horse and wagon trampled the teenaged Priessnitz, leaving him with several broken ribs and a bruised left arm. The doctor from a nearby town told him that the severity of his injuries made it unlikely he’d ever work again. Priessnitz, however, refused to accept this prognosis. He wrapped himself in wet cloths and ate very little while consuming large quantities of cold water. To reset his broken ribs, he pressed his abdomen against a chair and inhaled deeply, allowing the expansion of his chest to push his ribs back into place. Priessnitz eventually recovered from his injuries, and the success of his self-cure led him to broaden his investigation into the curing power of water.
Priessnitz sought not only to wash disease away but to deny it entry into the body through a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise. Priessnitz argued that filth and a poor diet gave disease easy access into the body. In The Hydropathic Encyclopedia, American hydropath Dr. Russell Trall explained that disease was “produced by bad air, improper light, impure food and drink, excessive or defective alimentation, indolence or over-exertion, [or] unregulated passion.” For Trall, it all boiled down to “unphysiological voluntary habits.” In other words, sickness resulted from laziness, a lack of exercise, and junk food, the familiar chords of obesity debates to this day.
Perhaps hydropathy’s most visible legacy is in the popularly held belief in drinking eight glasses of water a day. This notion was appropriated and echoed with increasing fervor in the late 19th century by the temperance movement. By the 1910s and 1920s, American newspapers and magazines were filled with exhortations to consume eight glasses of water for health on a daily basis. Although scientists and doctors continue to disagree over how much water is enough, the idea of drinking fluids regularly for health remains undisputed.
Priessnitz’s water cure became renowned throughout the Western Hemisphere. Visitors marveled at Priessnitz’s ability to diagnose disease and devise a treatment plan simply by studying the quality and cast of a patient’s skin. He never checked the pulse, looked at the tongue, or asked patients about their complaints. By 1840, nearly 1,700 patients per year sought treatment at Grafenberg.
Priessnitz’s success spurred countless imitators and admirers. The first water cure in the United States opened its doors in 1843, followed by a second the next year. Both were in New York City and were operated by disillusioned regular doctors. But it was Mary Gove Nichols and her husband, Thomas, who made hydropathy famous. Born in Goffstown, N.H., in 1810, Mary Sargeant Neal was the precocious daughter of a freethinking father who encouraged her active and curious mind. As a teenager, she pored over the pages of the books her medical-student brother brought home, fascinated by the workings of the human body but perhaps also wondering why she could find so little information on the health of women like herself.
An unhappy marriage in 1831 to Hiram Gove, who disdained her reading and creative writing, helped turn Mary into a champion of women’s rights and a prominent health reformer. To ease her mental and physical suffering, Mary defied her husband and turned back to the medical books that had so enthralled her as a child. She discovered Sylvester Graham, an early advocate of dietary reform, vegetarianism, and hygienic reform and determined that women’s well-being and happiness depended on the freedom achieved through personal health. Excited by her newfound knowledge, Mary wanted to tell other women of the salvation that could be found in knowing about and taking charge of their own bodies.