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Those Healthy Yankees Part 2: Joel Shew, Mary Gove Nichols and the Water Cure

This is the second in a two-part piece on the early 19th Century Yankee contribution to healthy lifestyles (you can read of Part 1 here). The parallels with today’s pandemic are most interesting. The material comes from a chapter in Volume 2 of my book, The Yankee Road.

By 1840, Massachusetts school reformer Horace Mann was advocating the teaching of ‘physiological education’ in the schools. We would today probably call this ‘human biology’, with ‘physical education’ now being concerned with exercise, rather than with healthy living.

In 1850, Lemuel Shattuck published a report on the poor sanitary conditions in Massachusetts and the State reacted by requiring the teaching of physiology and hygiene in the public schools. By then, Reverend Charles Finney, of Oberlin College in Ohio, had instituted the first college course in physiology and in 1840 had decreed that the students should live a physiological lifestyle, including a Grahamite diet. This latter requirement lasted all of a year, before a student revolt ended the experiment. 

The early 1840s marked the high point in public interest in diet and sanitary agitation, perhaps because the cholera epidemics had just run their course and because interest in health ideas had shifted. Alcott had left the defunct American Physiological Society in 1840 and by 1843, was President of the new American Vegetarian Society, a post he held until his death in 1859.

Mary Gove Nichols attacked women’s dress, especially the corset, as unhealthy, while Amelia Bloomer developed the pants that characterized radical women’s dress at the time (I’ll have more on that in Volume 3 of The Yankee Road, launching Fall 2021).

Interest grew in hydropathy, described below, as well as phrenology, or the relation of the shape of heads to personal characteristics, and people were joining spiritualist groups and millennial churches. Others became members of hundreds of utopian and communistic communities, such as Brook Farm or the Oneida Colony, or joined other social causes, such as temperance and antislavery societies. It would not be until the Civil War, and its aftermath, that new approaches to the healthy life would become popular.

At its basic, hydropathy relates the use of water to heal ailments, both internal and external. Processes can range from enemas to whirlpool baths and beyond. Hydropathy was originally welcoming to female practitioners and patients, probably because much of its early American practice focused on relieving the problems associated with childbirth, where mothers then had a one-in-eight chance of dying giving birth.

The idea of hydropathy as a procedure grew out of the experience of an injured German worker. Victor Priessnitz had been badly injured in a workplace accident in 1826, but found that keeping cold water on his injuries and drinking copious amounts as well, healed him. It also seemed to work on injured animals as well.

Priessnitz found himself at the center of a new ‘water cure’ for some ailments and began to gain both patients and followers at a spa in Austria. By 1845, his techniques had crossed to America.

Hydropathy was first popularized in America by a Yankee, Providence Rhode Island resident, Joel Shew. He was a daguerreotype assistant for 15 years, who went on to get an MD—an odd change of career. Shew became interested in Priessnitz’ experiences and went to Austria to visit his spa. In 1844, he set up a ‘water-cure infirmary’ in New York City and began to publish The Water-Cure Journal, which, at its peak in the 1850s, had 100,000 subscribers, one of which was John Preston Kellogg in remote Michigan. There was even a do-it yourself guide for women published in 1844. Marie Louise Shew, Joel’s wife,published her Water Cure for Ladies: a Popular Work on the Health, Diet, and Regimen of Females and Children, and the Prevention and Care of Diseases. Two more editions followed in 1847 and 1849.

James C. Whorton attributes the merger of hydropathy, or the ‘water cure’, and the grahamite diet to Mary Gove Nichols. Mary Sargeant Neal was born in 1810 in New Hampshire. Married to Hiram Gove, an unsuccessful entrepreneur with a brutal streak, she suffered miscarriages and acquired a chronic illness, likely TB. In her 20s, she, her husband and daughter moved to Lynn MA, where she ran a girls’ school and began to write on health issues and lecture to female audiences about them.

In 1841, she left her husband and applied for a divorce. Mary Gove continued to inform women about the ways they could live a healthy life. Besides diet, dress and ‘female problems’, she began to advocate cold showers and baths as part of a healthy life style. Unlike the Grahamites, she did not advocate sexual repression, but was accused of promoting ‘free love’.

After leaving Gove, she had an affair with Henry Gardiner Wright, an English émigré, who was suffering from lung cancer. He was trying to treat himself through hydrotherapy, Mary read all of the water cure literature Wright had, but Wright needed surgery, and was clearly dying. He rejoined his family in England and died there in 1843.

In 1845, Mary Gove heard of a new Brattleboro Vermont hydropathic spa and decided to go there to seek training in this technique. Most of those who went for the treatments suffered from chronic diseases, asthmatic conditions and nervous conditions, and they were expected to stay for as long as three months – no quick cures.

In 1848, Mary married Thomas Nichols, another health reformer, and they opened the first hydropathic medical school in the country. The Nicholses then caught the tenor of the 1850s, moving from one cause, cure or religion to another, and they and their school pass from the story.

The second hydropathic school, The New York Hydro Therapeutic School, was opened in New York City by a Connecticut, MD, Russell Thatcher Trall, in 1852. Trall had become the second editor of the journal Water Cure in 1849 and was an active writer and lecturer on hydropathy. Five years after opening his school, in 1857,Trall managed to meet the State academic requirements for a degree-granting institution and it was renamed The Hygieo-Therapeutic College. Trall’s curriculum incorporated the ideas of Gove, Graham, Alcott and Nichols and a few others like mesmerism, while admission was opened to men and women alike.

Shortly before the Civil War, Dr, Caleb Jackson opened a hydrotherapy spa/hospital on some mineral springs in the Genesee River country of western New York. ‘Our Home on the Hillside’ grew after the Civil War to admit 1,000 patients a year. As part of the diet, Dr. Jackson devised a breakfast grain cereal made from crushed Graham bread soaked overnight, rolled and baked that he called ‘granula’, the predecessor of ‘granola’. All of these ideas came together famously in the post-Civil War careers of two of John Preston Kellogg’s sons; John Harvey Kellogg and Willie Keith Kellogg. Their relationship is described in The Yankee Road Vol.2 as well.