Fun Fact: How Did a Man in the 19th Century Miraculously Cure Himself From Certain Death?
In the early 19th century, hydropathic institutes became all the rage after Priessnitz miraculously healed himself following a rib injury that his doctor had proclaimed would lead to certain death.
Question: How did a man in the 19th century miraculously cure himself from certain death?
Answer: An Austrian man named Vincent Priessnitz cured himself of a serious injury by drinking lots of water, cleaning his wounds with compresses soaked in cold water, and regularly changing his bandages, which would come to be dubbed a “water cure.”
In the early 19th century, hydropathic institutes became all the rage after Priessnitz miraculously healed himself following a rib injury that his doctor had proclaimed would lead to certain death. By a stroke of intuition, Priessnitz proceeded to drink lots of water, clean his wounds with compresses soaked in cold water, and regularly change his bandages, allowing him to get back to his farming duties within several days. He quickly became the talk of the town.
In this period of time, such treatment of an injury was not commonplace, and Priessnitz became known as a healer who used the power of water to cure all manner of injuries and illness. Due to his growing notoriety as the man who experienced a miraculous water-based recovery, he established the Grafenburg Water Cure in 1826 in the Austrian Alps, which was the first establishment of many that would come to be called hydropathic institutes.
From European royalty to Victorian luminaries such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, people across the continent gave glowing reviews of their experiences of these institutes. From treatments that included the “wet sheet,” which comprised of tightly wrapping an ill patient in a sheet soaked in cold water, to the “wet dress,” which involved having an ill patient put on a loose-fitting gown soaked in cold water, to the more classic and self-explanatory “cold water enema,” patients touted the institutes for their health restorative abilities.
During this period of limited access to regular bathing among the general public, some of the benefit of the hydropathic institutes may actually have come from the natural benefits one experiences from bathing more regularly and drinking more water, which is still known today to be highly beneficial.
Additionally, women of the time noted the specific benefits they experienced from the “wet dress” cure, as it allowed them the opportunity to move around the hydropathic institute not in a corset. The wet dress became so popular among women that a not-wet street version developed, which was then frequently worn by the likes of Elizabeth Smith and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both leaders of the women's rights movement in the United States at the time.
Journalist Amelia Bloomer touted their fashion-forward prowess ad nauseam, leading the fashion statement to eventually be dubbed “bloomers,” as a form of acknowledgment of her specific enthusiasm for them.
Despite the overwhelming positivity experienced by many in the general public during their water cures, not all patients were provided such cures voluntarily. The involuntarily “water-cured” patients were those in the insane asylums of the time, where cold water had long been used as a punitive device. With the advent of cold water as an actual treatment, mental health doctors of the time seized on the opportunity and applied it to their less-willing subjects with the hopes of reaping similar rewards.
With the intention of using hydropathic techniques to “shock” the insanity out of the minds of their patients, mental health professionals applied several different methods. One such method—which was recommended by the “Father of American Psychiatry” Benjamin Rush—was the “cold water pour,” which consisted of dumping streams of cold water down the coat sleeves of patients. Rush explained that this method was specifically designed to “establish governance over deranged patients.”
Another method was the “continuous hot bath,” which consisted of placing a patient into a hot tub with a continuous flow of water between 95 and 110 degrees. Mental health professionals would then place a sheet over the tub with a hole for the patient’s head. The patient was then left in the tub anywhere between several hours to several weeks.
Upon reflecting on the treatment method, one nurse at such a facility explained, “Patients could live in there for three weeks at a time in the bath. They slept in the bathtubs too. We fed them in the bath and held the drinking glass up to their mouth…They peed and defecated in the water, of course…Some patients became calmer from it, they really did! It exhausted them.”
A different approach used at insane asylums was the “douche,” which, despite the name’s contemporary association, was actually a process we more commonly refer to today as “water boarding.” In this process, patients were held under a stream of cold water as it fell continuously over their heads and mouths. This treatment soon become one of the most feared among the water cures used by professionals of the time.
Despite its similarities to the aforementioned treatment, the “pelvic douche” water cure was actually quite different. The pelvic douche was only used to cure women’s disorders, which in the mental health domain was primarily dubbed “hysteria.” During the pelvic douche treatment, mental health professionals would shoot a jet of cold water at women’s genitals in order to induce the curiously resulting “euphoric benefits” observed by the male doctors of the time.
A French physician in 1843 wrote of his observation of the treatment, “The reaction of the organism to the cold, which causes the skin to flush, and the reestablishment of equilibrium all create for many persons so agreeable a sensation that it is necessary to take precautions that they do not go beyond the prescribed time, which is usually four or five minutes.”
Some other commonly used water cures in insane asylums were “drenching,” which consisted of placing a patient under a stream of ice water, and the “dripping machine,” which involved positioning a bucket over a patient’s head as water would drip slowly onto a specific spot on the patient’s forehead. Today, the latter cure is more commonly referred to as “Chinese water torture.”
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.