Monday, August 24, 2015

Empowering Women With Water: On Hydropathy and a 19th Century Heroine

By Erika Janik, 1-20-14

Editor's Note: Erika Janik is a prolific history writer. Her work has appeared in Mental Floss and Isthmus, and just some of her books include Apple: A Global History, Madison: A History of a Model City, and most recently Marketplace of the Marvelous, a tale of remedies, cure-alls and other 19th century alternative medicines. Today she joins Biographile to discuss one such remedy, hydropathy, and how the woman espousing the cold water cure broke the gender barrier in the process.

Announcing the 1850 birth of his daughter in the pages of the Water-Cure Journal, Thomas Nichols asserted that childbirth could be not only easy but nearly pain free for women. His declaration wasn’t the smug opinion of a man standing idly by while his wife labored for hours in the other room. His wife, in fact, fully agreed with him.

Mary Gove Nichols's secret was hydropathy, a system of healing that relied on the power of cold, pure water to flush sickness from the body. Mary had suffered the agony of four successive stillbirths before submitting to its rigorous but healthful routine. Coming from anyone else, few Americans would likely believe their claim but Mary was one of the most influential and authoritative advocates of hydropathy in the nation.

Largely self-taught, Mary first made a name for herself in 1838 lecturing -- a scandal in and of itself for a woman -- on the shocking topics of women’s health and anatomy. Women’s health was a topic rarely, if ever, discussed at the time. Standards of female propriety meant that many women endured their sicknesses in silence to avoid being examined by a man.

Mary made it her mission to educate women. Hundreds packed lecture halls to see the thin, dark haired woman with exuberant brown eyes discuss the healthy, undressed female body. Though she’d never attended medical school, by the late 1840s, Mary led a doctor’s life. She treated patients with hydropathy and earned a reputation as a trusted medical expert.

With few exceptions, most of the nation’s medical schools refused to admit women. Supposedly ruled by reproduction, many Americans believed that women were physically and emotionally incapable of being doctors. Hydropathy, like many other alternative healing methods, took a different view of women. They welcomed them as both practitioners and patients. Next to teaching, medicine attracted more women than any other profession in the 19th century.

Despite the seeming innocuousness of water, hydropathic patients endured a grueling regimen of daily bathing, soaking, walking, and showering that lasted from dawn until dusk for several weeks. They also ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet free of alcohol, coffee, and other stimulating substances.

While many people traveled to water cure resorts, others treated themselves at home. Hydropaths strongly believed that everyone should have access to healthcare and provided the tools to make that possible. Hydropathy translated well to home use because it relied on regular rather than mineral water.

In 1851, Mary and her husband opened the nation’s first hydropathic medical school. Concerned about the dangers of the misapplication of cold water, not to mention charlatans masquerading as hydropaths for profit, the Nichols’ believed that the potency of water required expert guidance. They hoped their school would make water cure training a more respectable and professional alternative to regular medicine. More than just teaching about water, though, Mary hoped to graduate a new generation of female doctors.

"Women are peculiarly fitted to practice the art of healing…[because of the] tenderer love, the sublimer devotion, the never to be wearied patience and kindness of woman," Mary proclaimed.

Hydropathy drew a large and loyal female clientele. For many women, visiting a water cure was the first (and perhaps only) time their needs were put above those of their families. Writer Harriet Beecher Stowe was among the women who relished the break from her husband, children, and housework when she took the cure in Brattleboro, Vermont. Stowe’s husband Calvin, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for her return, reminding her that it had been "almost 18 months since I have had a wife to sleep with me. It is enough to kill any man."

Hydropathy’s popularity and glowing testimonials of its curative powers did not mean that taking the cure was always pleasant. At a time when few people bathed regularly, a cold hydropathic shower or bath could be a rude introduction. The outdoor shower became particularly perilous in the winter when icicles could form and fall like daggers on the bather below.

The popularity of water cure peaked in the mid-19th century with cultural changes wrought by the Civil War, scientific advances, and the rise of new alternative healing systems.

Mary never stopped working and advocating for the causes in which she believed. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1882, Mary treated herself with water as well as magnets. Through it all, Mary continued to see patients until two weeks before her death on May 30, 1884, dedicated to the end to improving the health of the nation and the prospects of women.

Despite its decline, hydropathy was not a complete failure: that Americans bathe regularly, aspire to regular exercise, and praise a low-fat and high-fiber diet all reflect hydropathy’s early influence. Few gyms, spas, or hotels fail to provide users with some form of hydropathic therapy, be it a whirlpool, steam room, sauna, or swimming pool. Moreover, the availability of bottled distilled, mineral, or spring water at grocery stores and restaurants today, often at exceedingly high prices, attests to our continuing faith in the efficacy of water to bring health.



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