For several hundred years, lasting into the 19th century, a predominant focus of European and North American mainstream medicine was challenging the body – balancing its humours – using methods such as bleeding, purging, blistering and sweating, and administering tonics laced with alcohol, mercury and cocaine. Referred to as heroic medicine, it was at best ineffective and frequently quite dangerous. People would often choose local healers, who used herbs and manual therapy approaches, rather than seek out heroic medicine physicians.
Opposition to heroic medicine became more consistent and established with advances in science and the scientific method, and also with a sweeping natural health movement that began in the later 18th century. Physicians who rejected heroic medicine were part of the change, establishing drugless practices based on diet, rest, time in nature, exercise and use of water treatments. The “nature cure” which was a precursor of naturopathy, and the “water cure” which preceded hydrotherapy, were central components of this revolutionary movement.
The water cure took strong hold in Europe and North America, giving rise to bath houses and water cure clinics and retreats that were ubiquitous and very popular in the 19th century.
Catherine Beecher (1800-1878) was not a practitioner. She was a health reformer, health educator and popular commentator. She came from an interesting family – her father, Lyman Beecher, was a founder of the American Temperance Society, and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the well-known suffragist and author.
Beecher was a proponent of the water cure as part of “rational, intelligent commencement of obedience to the laws of health” using “the simple, pure and universal element” of water. She explained water cure principles and therapies in lay language and travelled extensively to water cure establishments, writing articles about the treatments and facilities she encountered and advocating on behalf of their natural, holistic methods and environments.
Beecher was not an unthinking acolyte, however; she was honest, sometimes strident, in critiquing shortcomings or excesses when she saw them. She also disputed heavyweights such as Priessnitz, with whom she disagreed about using water treatments to precipitate a “health crisis.” Her writings culminated in an 1855 book, Letters to the People on Health and Happiness.
Beecher’s astute commentary and educational focus helped cement the place of the water cure within the health reform movement, contributing to the emergence of hydrotherapy as an accepted therapeutic discipline. So, while she is not a direct ancestor of the massage therapy profession, Beecher is one of the thoughtful reformers who helped pave the way for today’s alternative medicine.
by Debra Curties ’84
Ref: Benjamin PJ. The Emergence of the Massage Therapy Profession in North America. Curties-Overzet Publications, 2015