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  • Healing with water: English spas and the water cure, 1840–1960by Jane M. Adams
  • Amanda E. Herbert (bio)
Healing with water: English spas and the water cure, 1840–1960, by Jane M. Adams; pp. xiii + 290. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015, £70.00, $105.00.

Jane M. Adams's Healing with water: English spas and the water cure, 1840–1960, offers an authoritative examination of the critical medical role played by spas, baths, and other methods of hydropathy in modern Britain. As Adams quite rightly points out, much of the scholarly work on sites and spaces of bathing has focused on the ways that both early modern and modern Britons integrated medical bathing into regimes of leisure: studies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century bathing have illustrated the ways in which spa cities participated in the birth of a sociable urban renaissance, or have oriented themselves around charismatic figures such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells's master of ceremonies Beau Nash, and works on nineteenth- and twentieth-century bathing have centered predominantly on salt-water bathing and seaside resorts. But, as Adams argues, even today a short "walk around several inland resorts reveals the traces of substantial investment in bathing complexes, pump rooms, hydropathic institutions and mineral water hospitals that indicate that treatment remained a concern of many visitors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (2).

Adams's book examines the water cure in its many forms. In modern Britain, terms such as hydropathy, balneology, hydrotherapy, and medical hydrology all were used to describe different techniques and approaches to healing with water. Adams breaks these terms down concisely, leading the reader through the evolving medical and scientific practices which dictated how, why, and where patients should use water to heal their illnesses and injuries. The book is organized thematically, with chapters on the theory and practice of water cures, the growth and functioning of water resorts, and the ways in which water cures were (or were not) integrated into state medicine. But the chapters follow a broad chronology, with the first examining medical waters around 1840, and the last focusing on water cures during the First World War and interwar periods. Adams draws upon an exceptionally wide array of sources in this study: medical books and pamphlets, resort guidebooks and advertisements, the papers of businesses, hospitals, charities, mutual associations, and friendly societies which sprang up in spa and bathing cities, census data, trade directories, newspapers, national trade journals, private papers and letters, and even literary productions made in, or centered upon, water cultures and spaces. The book also features maps, early photographs, cartoons, lithographs, postcards, and engravings, which help to capture the look, geography, and sense of place generated within the gilded pump-rooms, grassy promenades, and tiled bathing compartments which made up nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical water centers. Together, these [End Page 349]many rich sources allow Adams to offer a thorough, carefully written, and well-researched study of water cures in modern Britain.

One of the real strengths of Adams's book lies in the author's ability to connect hydropathic cures to emerging nineteenth- and twentieth-century trends in chemistry, biology, technology, and even naturopathic movements. Advocates for the water cure enlisted scientists to subject natural springs to a barrage of tests, designed to identify and classify the minerals, salts, and gasses which supposedly gave these waters their curative powers. Water practitioners also took full advantage of the latest developments in plumbing, heating, and architecture, kitting out their facilities with elaborate plunge pools, running sitz baths, electrotherapeutic devices, and hydraulic spray, rain, and needle showers, which would have filled the complexes with a whirring, clanking array of high-tech valves, dials, and tubes so futuristic that one commentator called them "wonderfully ingenious" (113). But if water cures were considered to be modern, technologically advanced, and highly scientific, they were also a mainstay of the natural healing programs designed by Victorian health reformers, who believed that self-management, exercise, access to fresh air, fasting and dieting, and massage and stretching were the keys to physical as well as mental wellness. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century British women and men were deeply engaged in questions of the...


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