In Snippets 11 we looked at some rather out-of-date medical advice on taking cold baths. Medical books from the 18th and 19th Centuries often advocated bathing in the sea, and even drinking seawater. This idea was popularised by Richard Russell in the mid 18th Century, and adopted by many doctors thereafter. In 1805, Charles Taylor MD dedicated a whole book to the benefits of seawater, in Remarks on Sea-Water.
The mode of taking sea-water usually recommended, is to begin early in the morning with small doses, such as the quantity of one fourth, or even as far as half a pint at once, repeating the dose in an hour or two, and increasing or diminishing the quantity as it is found to agree or disagree; increasing the doses in succeeding days gradually as the stomach would bear, as far as a pint and a half or a quart, taking one third an hour before breakfast, one third in the interval betwixt breakfast and dinner, and the other in the evening, and decreasing the quantity in like manner before quitting the situation.
When sea-water produces a nausea and sensation of weight in the stomach, it is better to employ it as an alterative, than to proceed in taking it in considerable quantities: in such cases, the quantity of a wine-glass taken over night, another early in the morning, and a third an hour after breakfast, and this mode continued for some time, will keep the body regularly open without occasioning unpleasant sensations; and when the body is accustomed to its use, the doses may be increased without inconvenience. Dr. Buchan recommends, when sea-water is intended to act as a brisk purge, to drink about a pint in the morning at two separate times before breakfast; or rather, to drink half a pint at bed-time, and the same quantity early in the morning, mixed with as much boiling water as will warm it. Thus taken, it will not, as he justly observes, disorder the bowels in the night, and will act the next day without irritating and deranging the system. He further recommends, with great propriety, a single purge of sea-water to be taken as above, by persons apparently in good health, preparatory to the use of sea bathing. A material advantage which the sea-water possesses over other aperients is, that it does not afterwards constringe, but is rather productive of an increased action of the intestinal canal, which continues for some days. Where children cannot be prevailed upon to take sea-water unmixed, the addition of one third or one half of warm milk may be admitted in using it. Dr. Elliot remarks that sea-water acts as a brisk stimulus to the stomach and intestines, thereby increasing the appetite and promoting digestion. By its property of keeping the body open for a considerable time without hurting the constitution, it will frequently remove disorders which have resisted the force of other remedies.
Looking at advice such as this, alarming by modern standards, certainly illustrates how medical understanding has advanced over the years! However, it was already common knowledge in 1805 that seawater was toxic due to its dehydrating effects. Indeed, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first published 7 years previously, in 1798.
Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.
On a tangent, the image above shows The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favourite artists. His work is incredibly atmospheric. The ships in the painting represent Friedrich and his family, with younger members of the family closer to the shore, just starting out on life’s journey, and Friedrich himself far in the distance. It has no relevance to the article beyond being a painting that features the sea, but that was a good enough excuse to include it!