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Hydropathy: Roby Comes Through August 31, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


Hydropathy was one of Victorian England’s most interesting errors, the belief that by ‘taking the waters’ various serious conditions could be cured. Stuff and nonsense? Well, according to modern medical science, yes: and Darwin in the nineteenth century himself experimented with hydropathy (for his mysterious health condition) concluding that any success was really just a question of placebo. Yet Beach has noted over the years of his reading in Victorian England, case after case of men and women who believed that they got better by water treatment. Again just placebo? Perhaps. An example. This is from the biography of a northern English writer John Roby. Roby fell ill in 1844 aged fifty and came close to death with what sounds like some sort of progressive illness in the next three years. The first question is what went wrong, because his second wife, who wrote his biography, is artfully vague: and normally you can’t shut her up.

To trace the mental history for three or four years, from the commencement of the illness, would be too painful, even were the subject not too sacred. Increasing physical disease, wearing trial of other kinds, asked for a spirit vigorous and happy in the Christian’s strength, to bear up against them. But, instead of that, the mind had at the same time woes of its own to sustain. Left to feel as it had never before felt its own inwrought sinfulness and utter helplessness, it was borne down, crushed, only rising again to suffer anew, and again to sink. If the promises of God shone out as the stars in a cloudy night, it was only a momentary gleam, and dense darkness covered the face of heaven as before. Most touching are some private papers and letters, written during this period. In the former, particularly, intense yearning for the consciousness of a personal share in the Saviour’s love, earnest longings to be able with appropriating faith to say ‘My Father,’ are expressed with an emphasis, that renders them an embodiment of mental suffering in all its reality and severity… Having so long tried in vain the various measures prescribed by the best medical advice, both at home, and in different places he visited, Mr. Roby turned as a last resource to the Water Cure. He went to Malvern in the spring of 1847; looking up, as he afterwards said, to those beautiful hills, as he approached them, with the thought ‘I shall never walk there — I am only coming to die.’ Encouragement being given him, to expect ultimate recovery, and finding the process of cure would be very slow, he at once broke up his establishment at Rochdale, and fixed his residence for the time at Malvern. His own medical attendant considered him past hope when he left the north; nor was it in the power of medicine to effect a cure. When he commenced the trial of Hydropathy, Dr. Gully pronounced the sheath of every nerve to be in a state of active inflammation.

The clue to the illness comes up in that last phrase surely about ‘active inflammation’ of the sheath of every nerve. Presumably, then, this was  a neurological problem? Note that Roby believed that he would not be able to walk in the hills at Malvern: did he have fatigue or motor problems. The vague description continues:

Almost every ailment he took increased the Irritation: medicine only added fuel to the flame. He pursued the water treatment vigorously for some months, before he perceived any benefit, and to his own indomitable perseverance in following the prescribed directions he owed, under the blessing of God, his surprising restoration. A remarkably good constitution, unimpared by excesses of any kind, gave every advantage to remedial measures in combating disease, and in the end his case proved an instance of the perfect success of those measures.

If you want to be look on this cure with a skeptical eye: and the cure is presented as being something marvelous and even miraculous, then it might be worth noting the following. First, his wife notes that Roby had other problems in his life: ‘woes’. Second, he left his home and headed down to (beautiful) Malvern, making a break with the past. This is really just an exploratory post. But has there been any attempts to make sense of hydropathy beyond placebo. Are there other cases of miraculous healing? Is there any twenty-first century writing on water cures? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

1 Sept 2013: MJH writes I am the family historian and got interested [in hydropaphy] when my father left me [my great grandfather’s] Alfred’s 1857-58 medical school notebook.  This began several years of research on a subject I knew nothing about, but have since become very interested in.  I transcribed several letters Alfred wrote while working at the Franklin Water Cure in Franklin, Tennessee, and nearly 200 letters written home during the Civil War.  I’m currently working on an article about Alfred’s Battle of Gettysburg experience and hope to do a biography before putting his memory to rest. In brief, I became a convert to the idea of hydropathy in a mid-19th century context.  Not for a modern practitioner, of course, because we have medicines that actually work, for the most part, and better understand the causes of disease.  But in a time when mercury, opium, lobelia, and arsenic were the most common ingredients in medicines, using the water cure was actually an incredibly good alternative. Not because of what it WAS, but because of what it WASN’T.  In some ways, hydropaths stumbled on some helpful treatments without realizing the science behind why they were effective.  They were very cognizant of mercury, arsenic, opium, etc. being poisonous and bad for people.  But they were more than just placebo vendors. Hydropaths advocated treatment of illness with cold water (now known as a stimulant to the immune system and a mild aid to decrease inflammation, and a way to clean infected sores on the body).  Cold water was applied, but then followed by brisk rubbing with towels while the patient was wrapped in a sheet.  This stimulated blood flow, also a mild aid to circulation.  They advocated clean air, clean unpolluted drinking water in place of beer or spirits, vegetarianism or at least the cutting back of eating fried meats and foods, eating vegetables and unrefined grains, cutting down on sugar, taking mild exercise, and various other ‘heathful’ practices that physicians and health gurus are still trying to get us to follow today.  They also believed in establishing sewers and cleaning rotten matter from the streets in order to keep drinking supplies cleaner.  The beginnings of public health. As far as I was able to determine, a patient in the mid-19th century was actually far better off following a hydropathic treatment.  They would be adopting healthy living practices that might allow the body to heal and recover on its own, they practiced mild aids to improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation, which again would allow the body to heal naturally.  But most importantly, they allowed people to detox if they were taking preparations heavily loaded with toxic substances. The only time, of course, when mercury was of use was if the malady being treated was syphilis. However, if one suffered from anything other than syphilis, most mid-19th century medicines (at least the mercury preparations) actually made the patient sicker and compromised the immune system.  Another mid-19th century issue in American medicine was the idea that the body needed to be ‘purged’ of illness.  This led to the use of harsh emetics and purgatives for many conditions that already involved dehydration, which just led to quicker death.  Hydropaths not only did not believe in purging dehydrated people, but they forced hydration, which again (for reasons they did not understand) sometimes resulted in people recovering.  I can only speak for the United States, which used mercury in the form of “blue mass” pills to excess (even President Lincoln suffered from mild mercury poisoning from taking blue mass pills until he gave up their use after realizing they made him feel worse).  British physicians may have relied on different materia medica.  But in the US, hydropathy made a lot of sense until medicine moved beyond the theories of Galen to laboratory experimentation and the beginning of ‘modern’ medicine in the 1880s. It’s very easy for us to laugh at incorrect theories of the past, but hydropaths were serious about their philosophy.  The fact that it did cure some people, not necessarily for the reasons proposed by its practitioners, should make us examine the science behind it and not assume placebo as the convenient, and only, reason.  Hope this gives some food (and water) for thought on the plae of hydropathy in mid-19th century medical practice. Thanks MJH!