Water cure (therapy)

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This article is about a form of therapy used in the 18th and 19th century. For the form of torture, see water cure (torture).

A water cure in the therapeutic sense is a course of medical treatment by hydrotherapy.[1]


One form of water therapy, advocated by some alternative medicine proponents, is the consumption of a gutful of water upon waking in order to "cleanse the bowel". A litre to a litre-and-a-half is the common amount ingested. This water therapy, also known as Indian, Chinese, or Japanese Water Therapy, is claimed to have a wide range of health benefits, or at least no adverse effects.[2][3] Advocates of water therapy claim that application of water therapy at first will cause multiple bowel movements until the body adjusts to the increased amount of fluid.[2] While ingesting about a litre-and-a-half of water is generally considered harmless, excessive consumption of water can lead to water intoxication, an urgent and dangerous medical condition.[4]


The therapeutic use of water has been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations.[5][6][7][8][9]

Two seminal publications on the subject were released in the 18th century. Firstly, Sir John Floyer, a physician of Lichfield, was struck by the remedial use of certain springs by the neighbouring peasantry, investigated the history of cold bathing and published a book on the subject in 1702.[6] The book ran through six editions within a few years and the translation was largely drawn upon by Dr J. S. Hahn (1696–1773) of Silesia in a work published in 1738.[10] Secondly, a 1797 publication by Dr James Currie of Liverpool on the use of hot and cold water in the treatment of fever and other illness, with a fourth edition published in 1805, not long before his death.[11] It was also translated into German by Michaelis (1801) and Hegewisch (1807). It was highly popular and first placed the subject on a scientific basis. Hahn's writings had meanwhile created much enthusiasm among his countrymen, societies having been everywhere formed to promote the medicinal and dietetic use of water; and in 1804 Professor E.F.C. Oertel of Anspach republished them and quickened the popular movement by unqualified commendation of water drinking as a remedy for all diseases.[12][13]

Following the application of hydrotherapy around 1829 by Vincent Priessnitz, a peasant farmer in Gräfenberg, then part of the Austrian Empire, there was a popular revival of the water cure in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[5] During this time the term water cure was used synonymously with hydropathy, the term by which hydrotherapy was known in the 19th century and early 20th century.[14][15][a]. This revival was continued by others such as Captain R. T. Claridge, who introduced hydropathy into England in the early 1840s via writings and lectures, Sir William James Erasmus Wilson (1809–1884), James Manby Gully and Edward Johnson,[disambiguation needed] and Sebastian Kneipp.[15][7][16][17][18]

Other popular forms of water therapy included the sea-water treatment of Richard Russell, the contemporary version of which is thalassotherapy. This however was never known or marketed as water cure in the sense that became synonymous with hydropathy, now hydrotherapy. Rather, Russell's efforts have been credited with playing a role, along with broader social movements, in the populist "sea side mania of the second half of the eighteenth century",[19] which itself was of some significance, with some activities reminiscent of modern day spas. Indeed,

in Europe, the application of water in the treatment of fevers and other maladies had, since the seventeenth century, been consistently promoted by a number of medical writers. In the eighteenth century, taking to the waters became a fashionable pastime for the wealthy classes who decamped to resorts around Britain and Europe to cure the ills of over-consumption. In the main, treatment in the heyday of the British spa consisted of sense and sociability: promenading, bathing, and the repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting mineral waters.[20]

The spa movement itself became especially popular during the 19th century when health spas devoted to the “cure” were well-known medical institutions for the upper-class, especially those with lingering or chronic illness.[20] Spas and other therapeutic baths are somewhat synonymous with the term balneotherapy . Many scientific studies into the effectiveness of balneotherapy are said to suffer from methodological flaws, admitting no firm conclusions.[21][22]

Water cure practitioners ranged from qualified doctors to self-taught enthusiasts. For example, a famous water cure in Malvern, Worcestershire was begun in 1842 by Dr James Manby Gully using Malvern water.[23][24] Famous patients of Gully included Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Florence Nightingale, Lord Tennyson and Samuel Wilberforce.[25] Conversely, Henry Wirz, the only Confederate soldier executed in the aftermath of the American Civil War for war crimes, was said to have been a self-taught water-cure specialist. After emigrating to America from Switzerland, he is reported to have worked as a water-cure practitioner throughout New England.

See also[edit]


a. ^ The term water cure has also been used to refer to a form of torture. However, while the sense of water as a form of torture is documented back to at least the 15th century,[26] the first use of the term water cure as a torture is indirectly dated to around 1898, by U.S. soldiers in the Spanish–American War.[27] This was after the term had been introduced to America in the mid-19th century in the therapeutic sense, which was by then in widespread use.[5] Indeed, while the torture sense of the term water cure was by 1900–1902 established in the American army,[28][29] with a conscious sense of irony,[30] this sense was not in widespread use. Webster's 1913 dictionary cited only the therapeutic sense, water cure being then synonymous with hydropathy,[14] now known as hydrotherapy.

The ironic expropriation of the term water cure to denote the polar opposite of therapy is in keeping with some of the reactions to water cure therapy and its promotion, which included not only criticism, but also parody and satire.[31][32]


  1. ^ Angus Stevenson, ed. (2007). "Definition of Water Cure". Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2: N-Z (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 3586. ISBN 978-0-19-920687-2.  Note: Definition is under the general listing for water (noun), alphabetically in the sub-listing for phrases. This section begins on p.3585, but the definition for Water Cure is found in the top part of the first column on p.3586. The phrases are in alphabetical order, so it's just a matter of going down the list.
  2. ^ a b adeguia (n.d.). "Water Therapy". ABC of Fitness.com. Retrieved 6 April 2010. 
  3. ^ Rox B (n.d.). "Facts about Japanese Water Therapy". Factoidz: Bite-sized knowledge. Retrieved 6 April 2010. 
  4. ^ Liew, Dr Stanley (n.d.). "Is water therapy harmful to the body?". Response to question. Raffles Medical Group. Retrieved 6 April 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c Metcalfe, Richard (1898). Life of Vincent Priessnitz, Founder of Hydropathy. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd. Retrieved 3 December 2009.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  6. ^ a b John Floyer & Edward Batnard (1715. First version published 1702). Psychrolousia. Or, the History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern. In Two Parts. The First, written by Sir John Floyer, of Litchfield. The Second, treating the genuine life of Hot and Cold Baths..(exceedingly long subtitles) By Dr. Edward Batnard. London: William Innys. Fourth Edition, with Appendix. Retrieved 2009-10-22.  Check date values in: |date= (help) Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  7. ^ a b Metcalfe, Richard (1877). Sanitus Sanitum et omnia Sanitus. Vol.1. London: The Co-operative Printing Co. Retrieved 2009-11-04.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  8. ^ Wilson, Erasmus (1861). The Eastern or Turkish Bath; Its History, Rebirth in Britain, and Application to the Purposes of Health. London: John Churchill. Retrieved 2009-11-08. . Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  9. ^ "Baths". 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica (1911encyclopedia.org). Retrieved 2009-11-05. 
  10. ^ Hahn, J.S. (1738). On the Power and Effect of Cold Water. Cited in Richard Metcalfe (1898), pp.5–6. Per Encyclopædia Britannica, this was also titled On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly applied, as proved by Experience
  11. ^ Currie, James (1805). "Medical Reports, on the Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a remedy in Fever and Other Diseases, Whether applied to the Surface of the Body, or used Internally". Including an Inquiry into the Circumstances that render Cold Drink, or the Cold Bath, Dangerous in Health, to which are added; Observations on the Nature of Fever; and on the effects of Opium, Alcohol, and Inanition. Vol.1 (4th, Corrected and Enlarged ed.). London: T. Cadell and W. Davies. Retrieved 2 December 2009.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  12. ^ Metcalfe, Richard (1898), pp.8, 77, 121, 128, 191, 206, 208, 210. Note: Type "Oertel" into search field to find citations.
  13. ^ Claridge, Capt. R.T. (1843, 8th ed), pp.14 49, 54, 57, 68, 322, 335. Note: Pagination in online field does not match book pagination. Type "Oertel" into search field to find citations.
  14. ^ a b "Water cure definition per Webster's 1913 dictionary". Retrieved 6 December 2009. 
  15. ^ a b Unsigned article (1910). "Hydropathy". In …. The Encyclopædia Britannica. XIV. London: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company. pp. 165–166. Retrieved 2009-10-29.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  16. ^ Claridge, Capt. R.T. (1843). Hydropathy; or The Cold Water Cure, as practiced by Vincent Priessnitz, at Graefenberg, Silesia, Austria. (8th ed.). London: James Madden and Co. Retrieved 2009-10-29.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org). Note: The "Advertisement", pp.v-xi, appears from the 5th ed onwards, so references to time pertain to time as at 5th edition.
  17. ^ Kneipp, Sebastian (1891). My Water Cure, As Tested Through More than Thirty Years, and Described for the Healing of Diseases and the Preservation of Health. Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons. Retrieved 3 December 2009.  translation from the 30th German edition. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org).
  18. ^ Bradley, James (2003). "Cold cure: Hydrotherapy had exotic origins, but became a firm favourite of the Victorian elite". Wellcome Trust: News and Features. Retrieved 17 November 2009. 
  19. ^ Gray, Fred (2006). Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature. London: Reaktion Books. pp. 46–47. ISBN 1-86189-274-8. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  20. ^ a b Bradley, James; Dupree, Mageurite; Durie, Alastair (1997). "Taking the Water Cure: The Hydropathic Movement in Scotland, 1840–1940" (PDF). Business and Economic History. 26 (2): 426–437, 427. Retrieved 2009-11-17. 
  21. ^ Verhagen AP; De Vet, HC; De Bie, RA; Kessels, AG; Boers, M; Knipschild, PG (October 1997). "Taking baths: the efficacy of balneotherapy in patients with arthritis. A systematic review.". J Rheumatol. 24 (10): 1964–71. PMID 9330940. 
  22. ^ Verhagen AP; De Vet, HC; De Bie, RA; Kessels, AG; Boers, M; Knipschild, PG; De Vet, Henrica CW; Verhagen, Arianne P (January 2004). Verhagen, Arianne P, ed. "Balneotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2): CD000518. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000518. PMID 14583923. 
  23. ^ Wilson, M.D., James; Gully, M.D., James M. (1843). "A Prospectus of the Water Cure Establishment at Malvern, Under the professional management of James Wilson, M.D., & James M. Gully, M.D.". in The Dangers of the Water Cure, and its Efficacy Examined and Compared with those of the Drug Treatment of Diseases; and an Explanation of its Principles and Practice; with an account of Cases Treated at Malvern, and a Prospectus of the Water Cure Establishment at That Place. London: Cunningham & Mortimer. pp. n213–n245 in online page field. Retrieved 30 November 2009.  Note: the prospectus is at the back of the book, with its own preface by Wilson, and its own new pagination
  24. ^ Gully, James Manby (1869). A guide to domestic hydro-therapeia: the water cure in acute disease (2nd ed.). London: Simpkin, Marshall. Retrieved 30 November 2009. 
  25. ^ Swinton, William E (20 December 1980). "The hydrotherapy and infamy of Dr James Gully". Canadian Medical Association Journal. 123 (12): 1262–1264. PMC 1705053Freely accessible. PMID 7006778. 
  26. ^ Eric Weiner (3 November 2007). "Waterboarding: A Tortured History". National Public Radio. 
  27. ^ Evan Wallach (2 November 2007). "Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime". Washington Post. 
  28. ^ Paul Kramer (25 February 2008). "The Water Cure". The New Yorker. Retrieved 6 December 2009.  (Article describing the U.S. military expropriation of 'water cure' to denote a form of torture, with acknowledgement by one accused (p.3) of the difference in popular understanding, from the sense used by the military)
  29. ^ Sidney Lens (2003). The Forging of the American Empire: From the Revolution to Vietnam: A History of U.S. Imperialism. Pluto Press. p. 188. ISBN 0-7453-2100-3. 
  30. ^ Sturtz, Homer Clyde (1907). "The water cure from a missionary point of view". from the 'Central Christian Advocate,' Kansas, June 4, 1902. Kansas. Retrieved 6 December 2009. 
  31. ^ Thomas Hood, ed. (1842). "Review of Hydropathy, or The Cold Water Cure". The Monthly Magazine and Humourist. 64. London: Henry Colburn. pp. 432–435. 
  32. ^ The Larks (1897). The Shakespeare Water Cure: A Burlesque Comedy in Three Acts. New York: Harold Roorbach. Retrieved 6 December 2009.  Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)