The Ancient Origins of Hydrotherapy

The beneficial properties of water have been well-known since ancient times for its healing and disease-protecting effects. When men discovered the importance of water as an essential element for human life, they built the first civilisations close by to the sea and rivers. Due to its importance, water was seen as magical and considered a gift of the divinity. Egyptians and Israelites used to plunge themselves in the sacral water of Niles and Jordan.  Hindus, enter the waters of the Ganges river for healing their soul and body.

Ancient Greeks knew the beneficial properties of sulphurous springs, especially for healing skin diseases and for relieving muscular and joint pain. The element of Water was thought to have an Expulsive Virtue which washed impurities and waste products from the body. The cleansing action of the water is enhanced by its surface tension, which further enables the water to be able to penetrate and draw out the impurities and toxins. In the Homeric poems and Hesiod, many references are made to the use of restorative baths. Plato said, “The sea cures all ailments of man.”  Euripides said, “The sea washes away all men’s illnesses.”  Plato, Hippocrates and Aristotle all recommended hot seawater baths.  Cato the Elder served his slaves a mixture of wine and seawater to restore their energy.

Hippocrates, the famous philosopher, was the father of Hydrotherapy. He was very interested in the therapeutic properties of various waters, which he saw were either rain- fed, as in lakes or marshes, or from subterranean aquifers, as in mineral springs that come bubbling out of the rocks.  He theorized that their differing curative properties came from their differing contents of various minerals like; iron, copper, silver, gold and sulfur. In his work “De is, a quiz at loci” he describes the chemical and organoleptic water features, and the effects of hot and cold baths on the human body. Hippocrates, proposed the hypothesis that all the human diseases started in an imbalance of the bodily fluids. To restore balance; changes of habits and environment were advised, including bathing, perspiration, walking, and massages.

Thermalism became the social form of Hydrotherapy. Following on from the Greeks, Romans considered bathing as a regular regimen for good health. Many Roman and Byzantine physicians like Herophilus, Erasistratus, Asclepiades and Orebasius studied the curative properties of mineral springs. Roman thermal baths became a social experience for everyone. Numerous baths, which they called Balnea, were constructed in Rome and conquered lands all over Europe, for both private and public use. Baths, were also built in private houses, often with special areas dedicated to sauna and massage.  Not only was this a good regimen for human health, thermalism became important for socialising, relaxation and working. The Roman Thermae also had a medicinal emphasis, and were largely used as recuperation centres for the wounded military soldiers, fatigued by wars, to treat their sore wounds and tired muscles through the natural spring waters.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, spas in Austria and Germany, became popular. The Water Cure, which was also called Taking the Waters, was a 19th century health reform movement that employed the therapeutic use of water to revitalize health and treat disease. In the 19th century, detailed chemical analyses of the mineral contents of various hot springs waters began. (Today, in many European countries the scientific study of therapeutic spa bathing, is a recognized subspecialty of medicine) The Water Cure was a combination of Hydrotherapy, which is therapeutic bathing, Balneothrepy, which is bathing in thermal springs and Thalassothreapy, which is ocean bathing.

In 1849, Father Sebastian Kneipp who became known as the Water Doctor, invented a system of naturopathy of natural therapeutics.  When taken seriously ill with pulmonary tuberculosis, he discovers a book by the physician Johann Sigmund Hahn, On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied, which explained about the healing power of cold water. Fascinated by this information, Kneipp performed an experiment on himself in the cold Danube river. A bath that lasted only a few seconds and a brief run afterwards lead to a surprising positive result. He is invigorated afterwards and repeats the brief baths over the following days and supplements them with half-baths and affusions, the pouring on of water on the head, as in the rite of baptism. As a result, his state of health continually improves and his illness is gone. He began using Hydrotherapy to help some of his poorer parishioners. Kneipp, broadened his approach to include; medicinal herbs, exercise, a diet of low-protein and high fibre and adhering to the body’s natural biorhythms. He wrote My Water Cure in 1886 which was translated into several languages. Kneipp’s effective philosophy is grounded on the five basic principles of Water, Plants, Exercise, Nutrition and Balance. His five pillars remain so relevant today that his methods of aromatherapy and plant healing play an immense role in contributing to modern holistic healthcare and have influenced many other health programs and experts. The German UNESCO Committee have acknowledged his work as part of Germany’s cultural heritage. Today, the company of Kneipp continues its 125 years old heritage by providing natural body, bathing and skin products inspired by the lifelong naturopathic studies of the health pioneer Father Sebastian Kneipp.

The Belle Epoque period, late Victorian era to the Edwardian era, saw the emergence of Elitist Thermalism, throughout Europe and the Americas, Spas were on the rise. The new thermal centres were an integral part of gentile life, it was the beginning of Medical and Health Tourism. Health was not solely linked to the treatment of disease and ailments but also for well-being, luxury and social status.

To able to travel for their health like the nobility, was very much seen as a major aspiration for the wealthy classes, to be seen taking the waters whether afflicted by illness or not. The elite flocked in their masses to the European spas to socialize, fall in love, find creative inspiration, show- off the latest fashions, attend cultural events and meet famous people. I do hope that their health also benefited from the wonderful natural resources.

In my next blog post, I will go into more detail about the actual treatments. This is such a large subject it was becoming a bit too long like War and Peace!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s