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Hydropathy or the cold-water cure, 1842.

Hydropathy or the cold-water cure, 1842.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Hydropathy, a system of treating illness using water, was invented in the 1820s by an illiterate Austrian farmer called Vincent Priessnitz. He had once cured himself of several broken ribs by dipping bandages in cold water and wrapping them tightly round his body. Convinced that this could work with other illnesses, he invited sick people to his farm in Gräfenberg. By the 1840s Gräfenberg had become a famous health resort for wealthy Europeans suffering from incurable ailments. Mountain-top ‘hydros’ spread all over Europe and the USA. The first hydro in Britain was at Malvern; patients included Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.

Priessnitz did not believe in the use of drugs at all. He only used rough peasant food, lots of mountain walking exercise and a cold-water regime every morning and evening. Patients were given cold water ‘wraps’ using wet sheets for several hours at a time, sweating out the ‘poisons’ of their particular disease. They were also given cold-water ‘douches’ (high-pressure showers or sprays). Patients were expected to continue the diet and cold-water treatment at home. Douches were easy to set up in the garden - Darwin continued using his garden shower into old age.


R T Claridge, Hydropathy, or the Cold Water Cure (London: James Madden, 1842)

N Gevitz , ‘Unorthodox medical theories’, in W F Bynum & R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 617-619

R McGrew, ‘Irregular medicine (hydropathy)’, Encyclopedia of Medical History (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp 157-158

V Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)