What springs to mind when you think of the Christmas and New Year break? A swim in the sea? Well, that’s what many will be doing on Boxing Day or 1 January. Nationwide, people will be flocking to the seaside in fancy dress to brave the sea –either to raise funds for charity, accept a challenge or a show of courage. But have you ever thought of swimming in the sea as a way of improving your health?
For centuries, physicians have noted the physical benefits of bathing in cold water, advising patients to visit seaside towns to cure illness. It was believed that bathing in saltwater over a period of weeks or months would cure lung and skin conditions, improve circulation and strengthen immunity. In the past, a visit to the seaside was regarded as more of a medicinal remedy that a holiday, and to eighteenth century doctors, the sand, waves and the beach were regarded like our pharmacy today.
‘Thalassotherapy’ is the word given to this type of medicine, first used by Hippocrates to describe the beneficial effects of seawater. It comes from the Greek thalassa meaning ‘sea’and therapeia which means ‘therapy’ or ‘healing’.
In his Remarks on Sea Air and Sea Bathing, a pamphlet published in 1862, the surgeon John Holt Elkes Stubbs notes that:
‘A cold bath is a powerful tonic, particularly with children, and bathing in the open sea is the best form.’
It also includes a description by the physician Erasmus Wilson of the importance of the skin while bathing. The skin of an individual of average height and weight has a surface area of over 2,500 square inches, and includes over 7,000,000 sweat pores. The invigorating response of an individual to seawater is as a result of both salty grains which revive the skin and the shock from contact with the cold waves.Disease was averted and illness cured through the absorption of these salty particles by the skin.
The sea also had medicinal benefits for consumption or tuberculosis sufferers until the end of the epidemic in the 1860s. Some physicians went further urging patients to drink seawater as a medicine – enhancing its taste by the addition of honey or milk was permitted. Dr.Richard Russell prescribed bathing and drinking seawater for Leprosy. In his treatise published in 1750, A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil,Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption, he describes a sufferer covered in leporous spots. His cure was to sea bathe daily and drink a pint of saltwater each morning for nine months!
Sea temperature does not generally rise above 67°F (19.4 Celsius). So if you are brave enough to dip into the cold sea for your health on 1 January, go for it! Just be grateful that the practice of drinking saltwater with milk has not continued to this day!
The information above is derived from the medical section of the Welsh Print Collection. This collection of Welsh and Welsh interest printed works on medicine and health dates from 1750s. It contains 6,500 items including books on early medicine, herbal remedies, reports by urban and rural health officers,and reports of hospitals and mental health institutions. It also houses a complete set of reports and minutes of the King Edward VII Welsh National Memorial Association (WNMA). A health organisation established in 1911, as a precursor to the NHS, to provide free healthcare for Tuberculosis sufferers.
‘Medicine and Health in Wales before the NHS’ is a new NLW project, funded by the Wellcome Foundation. These medical treasures, hidden for too long, will be catalogued and digitised over the course of the next year ensuring online access to a wealth of information for the public, students and historians of medicine.
Project Manager, Medicine and Health in Wales before the NHS