The creation of a lucrative Medical Industry
in the 17th to 19th Century.
by Hilary Butler

The descriptions and facts presented here are all taken from a book called "The Beach, the History of Paradise on Earth" by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, published by Viking 1998 ISBN 0-670-88095-7. (No original research accompanies the facts presented. Direct quotes are in block, but the rest of the discussion text is a summary of what is written.)

 On May 21, 2000, Page C1 in the Sunday Star Times, there was an article on "the O zone" about the spawning of a new industry – the alleged benefits of hyperbaric oxygen. The medical profession’s view was that this was a therapy in search of diseases. The medical people seemed dismissively resigned to such "unscientific" quackery.

An American friend of mine loaned me ‘The Beach’, which includes a description of the spawning of an even bigger industry, and elaborates on the medical expertise in such ventures. Something, no doubt, they would prefer remained "never to be revealed". But the odd history lesson is very instructive.

The first interesting piece of information was on page 17 where tidal science and the influence of geography, shape and depth of relevant basins under the water, and the relative positions of the sun moon and earth are detailed. Most readers will know that tides have a different times, with two highs and two lows a day, which can be of markedly unequal heights. Even though scientists are hard put to explain all this, they are totally stumped by Tahiti, where semidiurnal tides occur like clockwork, with high tide at noon and midnight, low tide at six o’clock in the morning and evening. The tidal rhythm here is completely independent of the schedule of the moon, and instead seems to respond to the gravitational pull of the sun. Now how many of you knew that? Probably none, because anomalies are things best left undiscussed. If you discuss one, you might have to discuss others.

What has this got to do with Imunisation? Nothing, and everything. In my opinion, the medical profession is sometimes like Tahiti. They exist in isolation from the real world, operating as a law unto themselves.

"The Beach" provides a classic example of this:

"When Dr Robert Wittie in 1667 pioneered the therapeutic sea bath at Scarborough, he described seawater in his brochure both as a quaff and a medium of immersion. This was a brilliant tactic. By inventing the medicinal equivalent of a better tool for the job of curing gout, worms and other ailments for which mineral waters had been indicated, Dr Wittie created a need where no need had existed before. He had hit on a new, improved formula for the elixer of health.

"To us of coure, the idea of drinking seawater seems outlandish and even revolting. Most seventeenth-century Britons, however, did not share these qualms. In fact the objection to drinking seawater on the grounds of taste was easily circumvented by the simple expedient of "cutting" the salt water with some fresh milk. The more substantive question of therapeutic efficacy was soon laid to rest by a growing chorus of support from medical authorities with impeccable credentials.

"One of the most influential in this respect was the Englishman Sir John Floyer, who in his authoritative History of Cold Bathing, written in 1701-2 advocated the therapy on purely scientific grounds. He appealed to such irreproachable experts from antiquity as Hippocrates, Celsus, Caelius Aurelianus, and Galen, as well as to modern-day physiologists and English intellectual authorities. Floyer prescribed cold baths to urbanites, shut-ins, frail children, adolescent girls, and young people as a corrective for bodily and spiritual infirmities.

He prescribed immersion in water colder than ten degrees Celsius and insisted that men followed it with some form of vigorous exercise such as riding, or walking in the cold air. Floyer created a need where no need had existed before. He had hit on a new, improved, and lucrative formula for the elixer of health.


"The results of aquatherapy by the sea impressed another physician, Dr Richard Russell, who in 1750 published a treatise called A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption. Russell’s work was to the beach cure what Listening to Prozac would be to antidepressants: a permission slip to experiment with a new elixir or heathy. Persuaded by his piety and science, and entire generation of physicians was converted."

In his treatise, not only were the mineral virtues extolled, but he considered invalids to be pubescent girls who were to be prepared for the ordeals of womanhood. By the late 18th century hospitals were a feature of the seaside "resorts", and doctors wasted many hours doing detailed research, and arguing the differences, and benefits of various resorts for specifically different conditions.

Such was the pervasive influence and conditioning of society at large, that the well-known benefits of being nearly drowned were written into Jane Austen’s novel Sanditon, where no person could be really well without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year.

And because therapeutic bathing was altogether too serious an affair to be left to the devices of an inexperienced, and often frail bather, and the cold sea too dangerous to be ventured into without a guide, a whole related industry sprung up in which the process was overseen by a "bather" for men, and "dipper" for women, whose job was to supervise the "therapeutic descent" into the water, and "to monitor the extent and duration of the immersion." For those of financial and influenceialposition, the "procudure" was underaken in special private facilites. The "bathers" waited their turn in elegant bathing rooms where you could read the newspaper, or take tea, or of course, sea water while waiting to be called. They arrived at six o’clock in the morning, giving their names to receptionists who chalked them on a large slate. It was considered desirable to get one’s bathing out of the way early to avoid the run’s rays, which were considered to cause congestion, dry out the body, and give skin the undesirable hue of the working classes. Competition developed for taking one’s "dip" which the fashionable famous dippers, whose names were passed around by word of mouth.

For those too feeble to make the trek, they could get there by hiring a bath-chair, similar to a rickshaw.

If you were a lady, when your name was called, you paid your one shilling and sixpence (a fortune in those days) and mounted the three steps into a cabin set on broad wheels and hitched to a horse. This side of the business was usually run and owned by the husband of the respective dipper. There, you slipped out of your promenade dress, and into a severe flannel smock which was lead-weighted around the ankles. You then settled yourself on a velvet-cushioned bench for the short, bumpy ride into the suf until the water lapped against the underside of the floorboards. You then became the "victim" (my words, not theirs).

The "dipper", stood in waist-high water, and lowered the victim into the water, and holding onto the waist tightly, waited for a wave to form. Just as it broke, she plunged the bather headfirst into the swirling foam. The young victim struggled in the dipper’s grip, as the sock of the icy water took her breath away. The surge of water rushed up her nose and pressed against her eyelids. Beneath her feet, the sea bottom swirled and eddied, knocking lead disks in the hem against her legs. She opened her mouth to breathe, but took in water instead. She fought to raise her head, but the dipper held her fast. With a sense of overwhelming panic, she felt herslf suffocating. Just as she was about to lose consciousness, she was hoisted up and deposited on the bottom step of the ladder where the dipper rubbed her wrist and back vigorously to revive her. Blue-lipped and trembling from cold, but wide-eyed from the rush of adrenalin, the girl cried, shouted and wept, begging to be taken back to shore… but no one took any particular note of her struggles even when the dipper submerged her again. Not until this ordeal of immersion and revival had been repeated five or six times was the "patient" allowed to return to the haven of the bathing machine.

One inside, she quickly stripped, stepped on the foot warmers, vigorously towelled her extremities to restore circulation. She slipped into warm clothes, returned to her hotel for a cup of hot tea or a bracing bouillon, rested for an hour and then, after lunch, joined her friends for a stroll about the promenade, trying not to think about the sea, or the terrifying experience she had just survived, because every morning for the next five weeks she would once again be subjected to this therapeutic immersion in the cold currents. (tense changed)

Mornings were also devoted to reading, music and drawing in the case of the ladies. But yatching, cricket and riding were prescribed for gentlemen.

The afternoons were for social calls, shopping, charity work – one was not exempt from this duty even on therapeutic holiday. Botanical, geological and archeological excursions satisfied the need for self-improvement. "Scientific" parties were organised for amateur naturalists to study and sketch the varieties of marine life, birds and geological formations. Visits to the marketplaces, local festivals and fairs were raised above the level of idle gawking by being conducted in the spirit of intellectual enquiry. Ruined abbeys, picturesque cemeteries, medieval fortresses and towers were sought out as memorials to ancient heroic deeds and tragic love affairs.

For invalids, a good part of the afternoon was devoted to updating a daily therapeutic log. Patients who took their sea-bathing therapy seriously – and most of them did – were encouraged to take an active part in monitoring the state of their health and keeping track of their physiological responses to the various sea therapies prescribed for them. Regular visits to the doctor were obligatory for all, and doctors expected detailed reports about "evacuation", sleep, appetites and circulation. Paying attention to oneself was promoted as a legitimate discipline that was critical to maintaining one’s goodhealth.

The evenings were entirely given over to elaborate dinners, asemblies and dancing at private residences and hotels. Card parties and gambling were available at the more cosmopolitan resorts such as Brighton and Scarborough. But this busy social whirl excluded invalids, who had to conserve their energy and retire about ten o’clock after a light supper.

What started as the creation of an industry to line medical men’s pockets, expanded into a lucrative resort business for hotels, and those civilians who implemented the medical programmes, and organised – and charged for – the activities which occupied the rest of the six weeks. The industry of course extended to everyone, bakers, merchants, farmers, cloth makers, stockbrokers, entrepreneurs, bankers – you name them, they were in on it all.

With such riches to be ploughed, the industry also spread throughout Europe, with the enthusiastic implementation by medical people everywhere.

However, don’t for one moment think this led to a mixing of classes. No no! The beaches were carefully zoned along both sex and class lines, with commoners having no privacy or amenities. They were, however, "drowned" with equal enthusiasm, even if they didn’t pay quite so much for the privelege.

This is just one of the many quaint foundations of financially lucrative, but scientifically vacous medical history, like blood letting, cupping and legions of other now forgotten anomalies that were once the bread and butter of the then "modern" medicine. And if the world is still around in 300 years, how would an author depict the writings of today, and the Industry that is now Immunisation, with all its pamphlets, factories, advertisers, implementers, hundreds of thousands of gravy-train reseachers, propaganda planners, WHO implementers, stockbrokers, bankers, and attendant hanger-oners? Not to mention the new branch of medical specialists trying to help children damaged by this magical silver bullet which, like sea bathing was, is "endorsed by medical authorities with impeccable credentials", who will tolerate nothing except the most glowing of reports.

And I wondered too, just what the place of Immunisation would be in the overall scheme of things. Would it too, have been consigned to the annals of medical mysteries, detailing how the medical experts of today made their fame and fortunes at the expense of someone called Ewen Mee?

 [Vaccination]  [Hilary Butler]