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  • Simon Baruch: Rebel in the Ranks of Medicine, 1840–1921
  • Stuart Galishoff
Patricia Spain Ward. Simon Baruch: Rebel in the Ranks of Medicine, 1840–1921. History of American Science and Technology Series. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. xiv + 399 pp. Ill. $49.95.

In this fine biography, Ward recounts the life and times of Simon Baruch, a nineteenth-century physician best known today for his advocacy of public baths. A Prussian-Polish Jewish teenage immigrant who came to the United States in 1855, Baruch became a prominent and controversial figure in American medicine. His championing of hydrotherapy and other treatment methods designed to buttress the body’s natural healing powers placed him at odds with his colleagues, who were increasingly relying on surgical and bacteriological interventions.

Upon receiving the M.D. degree from the Medical College of Virginia in 1862, Baruch became a surgeon in the Army of the Confederacy, twice undergoing capture and internment. After the war, he returned to South Carolina, where he helped to reactivate the State Medical Association and served as president of the State Board of Health. Seeking a greater arena for his talents and ambitions, he moved to New York City in 1881, where he quickly made a name for himself by diagnosing a case of perforated appendix that was successfully treated surgically—one of the first operations of its kind.

Shortly thereafter, Baruch became known as the apostle of cleanliness for his promotion of shower baths for the urban poor. He had become aware of the inability of the poor to bathe themselves when he served as a dispensary physician in one of New York’s most notorious slums. While shower baths were established in many of the nation’s biggest cities (as revealed by Marilyn Thornton Williams in Washing “The Great Unwashed”: Public Baths in Urban America, 1840–1920 [1991]), they were frequently underutilized, and were subsequently abandoned when tenement house legislation enacted during the Progressive Era required all new rental units to be furnished with indoor plumbing.

Among his colleagues, Baruch gained a reputation for iconoclasm for his promotion of hydrotherapy. Ernst Brand’s success in treating typhoid patients with cold baths made a convert of Baruch, who all his life had been trying to chart a middle course between clinical nihilism and heroic remedies. Baruch believed that the beneficial physiological effects of water treatments could be established on a rational, scientific basis, and he wrote several books on the subject. In 1907 he was appointed professor of hydrotherapy at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, but he resigned in 1913 when hydrotherapy was changed from a required to an elective subject.

Ward has skillfully blended primary and secondary sources to produce a vivid account of Civil War and South Carolina Reconstruction medicine, and of Baruch’s many crusades to improve medical practice and to alleviate the suffering of the urban poor.

Stuart Galishoff
Georgia State University

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