Swimming in Broth: Medicated Baths in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Bottle of medicinal water, France, 1928 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images.
Bottles of medicinal water, France, 1928
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Amanda E. Herbert

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, mineral waters were considered to be wonderful cure-all medicines. The waters were taken both internally and externally, with some patients drinking them and others choosing to swim in mineral pools. We’ve explored these water cures in a few different Recipes Projects posts (see here and here). Mineral or spa waters were exceptionally popular, and thousands of Europeans flocked to hot spring cities each year, seeking relief from everything from dandruff to gout.

In order to take advantage of the trend, some enterprising medical practitioners even devised recipes for “artificial” or “manufactured” waters. A pamphlet held at Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library describes one early modern doctor’s efforts to capitalize on the mineral water craze. In 1782, Dr. Rhodomonte Dominiceti wrote a pamphlet about his own experiments in replicating the effects of spa and mineral waters. His Dissertation on the Artificial medicated Water Baths (London, 1782) served as both a description of his methods and an advertisement for his business.

Apparatus for making mineral waters, 1783. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Apparatus for making mineral waters, 1783.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dominiceti used “three different sorts of water, viz. Rain, New River, and Spring Water” as the base for his concoctions. He believed that each type of water had different properties, meaning that “the choice of which [water to use] is of the utmost importance…for the cure of many complaints.” Dominiceti then “impregnated” the rain-water, river-water, or spring-water by adding “medicinal substances (found by experience salutary)” to each. He was cagey about exactly what these medicinal substances were – undoubtedly Dominiceti didn’t want other doctors and medical practitioners stealing his secrets – describing them merely as “the Effluvia of Liquid Balsams, and Essences” in one part of the pamphlet, and “various Vegetables and Mineral Substances” in another. For those patients who wished to bathe in the artificial spa waters, Dominiceti reassured his clients that the mysterious medical baths would, at the very least, be gentle on their skin, as they might contain “sweet oil” and “mucilage,” as well as “Virgin Milk made with Balsam and Milk.” One bath was even comprised of “Veal, or other Broths.”

As unappealing and malodorous as a veal broth bath may have been, Dominiceti worked hard to convince readers of the efficacy of his methods. He boasted that a “Captain of the army in the East-Indies” who had been taken ill after “having lain in damp sheets” was cured using his methods. Another man, a “Major-General officer of his Majesty’s forces lately come from America,” who had fallen ill with “a cold he took at Mud-Island [e.g., Fort Mifflin/Fort Island Battery, in Philadelphia PA]” was cured by Dominiceti in only three weeks’ time. Women, too, received cures from Dominiceti’s artificial waters, such as “a young lady…[who] got a cold in the passage of the Opera-house waiting for her carriage” and who was, through the doctor’s help, apparently “quite recovered, and now remains in a most perfect state of health.” By claiming as his patients war veterans, travelers afflicted with “exotic” and dangerous foreign diseases, and fashionable and wealthy citizens, Dominiceti attempted to establish his credentials as both a respectable man and an effective doctor – and to make his fortune in the highly competitive mineral water medical marketplace of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


7 Replies to “Swimming in Broth: Medicated Baths in Eighteenth-Century Europe”

  1. Very interesting post thanks Amanda. I’ve been working on the history of 19th century physical therapies and would be interested to hear more about your work. It’s rather out of your period, but have you come across Margaret Werry’s book “The Tourist State: Performing Leisure, Liberalism, and Race in New Zealand”? It’s a very good Foucauldian genealogy of the birth of the spa movement at the end of the 19th century in NZ.

  2. Thanks very much, Dave – I’m glad that you liked the post. I’m currently at work on a book entitled _Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Science._ My aim is to shift focus away from the genteel, sociable spaces of the tea rooms and dance-halls of Georgian Bath, and to demonstrate that the primary function of 17th and 18th c. spas (in metropolitan as well as colonial Britain) was to offer aid to the sick and injured — and to serve as a critical site for discourses on public health and the “new science” of the early modern period. I’ll certainly take a look at the work you mentioned – thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Sounds really interesting, and not an argument that I’ve seen made before. I’ll be keen to see how your thesis develops. Will you be using much of Foucault’s work on pastoral and biopower, or some of the disciplinary technologies directed at the body? I’m doing some work myself on the connection between physical therapies (massage, hydrotherapy, movement, exercise) and their relationship to luxury and surplus, so there may be some parallels there.

  4. That sounds like a great project – there’s so much good work to be done on spas, in the early modern as well as the modern period. I will be talking a bit about criticisms of luxury towards the end of the book, but mainly I’m interested in ideas about (and justifications for) the provision of charitable medical care. Foucault is always in the back of my mind — as is only appropriate, I suppose! — but at the moment I don’t plan to make Foucauldian analysis a central philosophical/historiographical tenet of this project.

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