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  • Diseased, Douched and Doctored: Thermal Springs, Spa Doctors and Rheumatic Diseases by Roger Rolls
  • Amanda E. Herbert
Roger Rolls. Diseased, Douched and Doctored: Thermal Springs, Spa Doctors and Rheumatic Diseases. London: London Publishing Partnership, 2013. 244 pp. Ill. No price given. (978-1-907994-09-8).

Scholars interested in the medical history of Bath Spa will learn much from Roger Rolls’s book Diseased, Douched and Doctored: Thermal Springs, Spa Doctors and Rheumatic Diseases. Rolls, a medical doctor as well as an author and amateur historian, provides a detailed examination of the medical uses of the thermal waters that have made Bath, a small city located in the west of England, a famous health resort. The book is structured around a portrait by William Hoare, Dr. Oliver and Mr. Peirce Examining Patients (1762), which depicts two men conducting physical examinations of three patients: a small child suffering from a skin disease, a man with palsy, and a woman who has rheumatism. The book commences with two chapters on the chemical properties of the waters, and describes their uses from the first century CE through to the present. For much of Bath’s history, medical practitioners believed its waters were impregnated with beneficial salts and minerals. But when nineteenth-century analyses revealed the waters to contain few, if any, of these substances, spa doctors shifted their treatments to include the use of static electricity, radio waves, and even radon. Rolls’s expertise as a medical doctor anchors these chapters, as he provides helpful information about modern understandings of the relative efficacy of these regimes. The book then returns to the Hoare portrait, with subsequent chapters on “Aches, Paints, and Rheumatism” (represented by the female patient), “The Palsy” and “The Gout” (after the male patient), and “Scabbes, Scurf and Lepers,” as well as “Children at the Spa” (for the youthful patient). The final two chapters, “Spa Doctors” and “Hospital [End Page 384] for the Nation,” honor the portrait’s subjects, Oliver and Peirce. In each of these remaining seven chapters, Rolls offers evidence of the diseases, injuries, and complaints that brought clients to the spa at Bath, and he explores the people and institutions devoted to easing or curing these maladies.

The book’s strengths lie in its exemplary primary sources, and most notably its extensive use of rare seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, twentieth-, and even twenty-first-century images. There are nearly one hundred figures in the book, painstakingly culled from archives, hospitals, and libraries across Britain. One of the most affecting images shows an unusual sampler made in the Bath General Hospital by a patient named Mary Wise. The sampler depicts the hospital itself, with its many empty windows and rather grim façade. Only one figure humanizes the building: the hospital porter, stitched into guard duty within a miniscule doorway (p. 208). Wise’s embroidery speaks to the tedium that surely characterized early nineteenth-century hospital stays, and also suggests that patients’ activities while in hospital were structured by complex sets of assumptions about gender, surveillance, and time management. But such engaging sources also serve to highlight the limitations of the work. This book is devoted to study of “the rationale behind spa therapy,” but the city of Bath was and is so much more than just a location for medical treatment (p. 1). Within Bath—and within many of Britain’s other popular hot spring cities, which go largely unexamined in the book—practitioners and patients mingled with politicians and priests, philosophers and natural scientists, dramatists and musicians. Spa cities were sites for the creation of many different kinds of discourses, experiments, and ideas: not just of medicine, but of literature, art, philosophy, and theology. The wonderfully rich sources examined by Rolls may not, on first glance, seem to reveal the private lives, personal experiences, and mental worlds of the people of Bath. But as recent works on the history of medicine have shown, these sorts of detailed cultural analyses are necessary if we are to gain a more complete understanding health and healing in the past.1 Rolls’s evocative evidence suggests that spa cities are very deserving of continued and comprehensive scholarly attention. [End Page...


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pp. 384-385
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