Why Do You Drink Eight Cups of Water a Day? Because of a Bunch of Revolutionary 19th-Century Quacks.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 9 2014 11:50 PM

The Feminist Origins of “Eight Cups a Day”

The water-healing quackery that empowered women’s medicine.

140209_SCI_Hydropathy
The water cure advised patients to take water in a variety of ways, from steam baths and full tubs to showers and foot and sitz baths.

Courtesy of Beacon Press

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM “Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 8:41 PM You’re Cut, Adrian Peterson Why fantasy football owners should release the Minnesota Vikings star.