Hippocrates and the Water Cure


(From Back to Eden – Jethro Kloss)

Water has been used from time immemorial for remedial purposes. The world’s oldest medical literature makes numerous references to the beneficial use of the bath in treating various diseases. The learned Greek, Hippocrates, who lived about five hundred years before Christ and is referred to as the “father of modern medicine,” was the first to write much on the healing of diseases with water. He used water extensively, both internally and externally, in treating illness of all kinds. “When pain seizes the side, either at the commencement or at a later stage, it will not be improper to try to dissolve the pain by hot applications...A soft large sponge, squeezed out of hot water and applied, forms a good application...A soft fomentation like this soothes pains, even such as shoot to the clavicle.” Hippocrates goes on to say: “...for the bath soothes the pain in the side, chest and back; concocts the sputa, promotes expectoration, improves the respiration, and allays lassitude; for it soothes the joints and the outer skin, and is diuretic, removes heaviness of the head, and moistens the nose. Such are the benefits to be derived from the bath.”

Long before Hippocrates recorded his experiences with the healing properties of water, we have learned from the study of ancient history that the Egyptians enjoyed bathing in their sacred river, the Nile. Pictures of ancient Egyptians, found in the tombs, show people preparing for a bath. The baby Moses was found in the rushes when Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river to bathe. Bathing held a prominent place in the instructions that were given by Moses, under divine guidance, for the government of the Hebrew nation. The relations of the bath to the treatment of leprosy would lead us to believe that it was used for its curative effects, and it would seem likely that an agent held in such high regard as a useful remedy would also be highly esteemed as a preventive of disease.

The ancient Persians and Greeks erected stately and magnificent public buildings devoted to bathing. The baths of Darius I (about 558-486 B.C.), one of the earliest Persian kings, are spoken of as being especially remarkable. The Greeks were probably the first nation to use the bath for personal cleanliness as well as for health reasons. Records show that they were using the warm bath more than one thousand years before the birth of Christ. In the ruins of King Nestor’s palace in Greece there was found a built-in-bathtub and drainage system more than 3000 years old. Rome, however, surpassed all the older nations in the costliness and magnificence of her bathing facilities. The first public bath was erected in Rome in the year 312 B.C. and it used only cold water. It was not long, however, until warm water baths replaced all those using cold water alone. Some of the greatest works of architecture in Rome were the warm public baths, which were supplied with every convenience for increasing the use and luxury of bathing as well as having many rooms for social gatherings. Kings and emperors each endeavored to construct a larger and more ornate public bath than their predecessors. The baths of Diocletian, completed in 302 A.D., were the largest in the world and could accommodate up to 18,000 bathers at the same time. It took 10,000 Christian slaves nearly seven years to complete their construction. When the baths were completed, the slaves had the choice of renouncing their religion or suffering martyrdom. At one time the number of public baths in Rome reached nearly one thousand.

Two noted physicians of the Roman Empire, Celsus and Galen, praised and glorified the bath as being invaluable for the treatment of a number of specific diseases. Galen said that exercise and friction must be used with the bath in order to have a perfect cure. If only the physicians through the following centuries had continued the practice of Galen, as described in his works, what a lot of suffering would have been avoided. Doctors would have refreshed and revived their fever-stricken patients with the use of God-given water, instead of giving them drugs like quinine, mercury, arsenic, etc, and letting them be consumed by fever that parched their lips and disorganized their blood. The Emperor Augustus was said to have been cured by water remedies of a disease that had resisted all other methods of treatment.

The Arabians have sometimes been looked upon as a wandering horde of wild men, but about one thousand years ago they had physicians among them that were some of the most learned men of that age. They were very sensible and enthusiastic about the benefits of the bath. Rhazes, one of the most prominent among them, described a method that is scarcely outdone by present-day water treatments. Baths were also used during pestilences.

In Constantinople, Turkish baths were very popular during the fifteenth century.

In the year 1600 A.D., public vapor baths were numerous in Paris, France. They were connected with the barber shops, as many still are in that country at the present time. Dr. Bell, of Paris, states that in connection with the city hospitals nearly 130,000 baths were given in a single year to outside patients. Undoubtedly, patients in the hospitals were steamed and bathed as well. What a marked contrast with present-day hospitals in this country where the use of water treatments is most sadly neglected. Such neglect is inexcusable.

The Germans in olden times were very fond of bathing. According to the records of history, during the Middle Ages when there were many cases of leprosy, it was a religious duty to bathe because of the national faith in bathing. History also tells us that Emperor Charlemagne, who was a giant of a man over seven feet tall with long blond hair, held court while relaxing in a huge warm bath.

During the early part of the eighteenth century, water was used medicinally. Floyer published a history of bathing in which remarkable cures were reported, and he recommended the bath for numerous diseases. A Mr. Hancock, who was a minister, published in 1723 a book called “Common Water, the Best Cure for Fevers.” Another book, whose author is unknown, was called “Curiosities of Common Water.” It was also published in 1723. In this book water was said to be an “excellent remedy which will perform cures with very little trouble, and without charge, and may be truly styled a universal remedy.” French and German writers were also advocating the use of water as a remedy during this same time.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Vincent Priessnitz popularized the use of cold water as a curative measure. He was a peasant who lived in the Austrian part of Silesia from 1799 to 1851. In the small Austrian town where he grew up, water was used by the people to treat many ailments. When only a young man, Priessnitz suffered a severe injury. Several of his ribs were broken and his chest was caved in on the left side by a loaded wagon. Several of his teeth were also knocked out. The doctors who came to see him did not offer any hope for a cure. But he remembered several years before when he had successfully treated a badly crushed finger by holding it in cold water until the bleeding stopped and the pain was relieved, and he decided to treat his broken ribs in the same way. So by taking deep breaths while leaning over a chair to expand his ribs and using cold water, he was gradually completely cured.

It was not long after this that Priessnitz began to use this cold water treatment on others. His routine course of treatment consisted of cold baths and compresses, along with friction. He used this form of treatment for all manner of disease, since this was what had cured him. He combined the cold water therapy with exercise, deep breathing, and a diet of dark bread, meat, and vegetables that he grew in his own garden. His success greatly encouraged, but he met with considerable opposition from the doctors when he treated some of their patients and cured them, after the doctors had given them up.

Although Priessnitz had no formal education, he developed various ways of applying cold water to the body to treat different diseases. His fame increased rapidly and in a few years he was known throughout the world. Today he is called the father of modern hydrotherapy. He succeeded in restoring hundreds of people to health who had been pronounced incurable. His friends claimed that he was a great discoverer, but he really didn’t discover anything that had not been known for at least a century, if not for thousands of years before.

A famous neurologist in Vienna, Dr. Wilhelm Winternitz, went to observe Priessnitz’s water cure treatment center in Graefenberg, Austria. He was so impressed with what could be accomplished with such simple means that he spent the rest of his life working to develop new methods of water treatment. The influence of Dr. Winternitz was felt by such well-known American water cure advocates as Dr. Simon Baruch and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. It was Dr. Baruch who was chiefly responsible for the passage of laws in the state of New York that required the establishment of municipal baths in that state. Dr. Kellogg was the director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, the largest hydrotherapy treatment center in the United States until it was destroyed by fire on February 18, 1902. He developed many new treatments, including the electric light bath, that used natural methods.

The “water cure” spread to America about 1850 and until about 1854 it prospered greatly, but most of the doctors were opposed to this treatment. It seemed almost as though they did not want the people to get hold of any remedy that was practical, inexpensive, and could be used in any home. About 1870 they successfully had a law passed that prevented the water cure practitioners from practicing in New York. Since New York City was the headquarters, as soon as these treatments were stopped there, their use was abandoned nearly everywhere for a while.

Sebastian Kneipp, a Catholic priest in Bavaria who cured Archduke Joseph of Austria of Bright’s disease during the late nineteenth century, gained a wide reputation because of his success with the water cure. He also had his patients return to nature, as far as possible. He used herbs with great success because he combined their use with other natural remedies.

The North American Indians used baths for many diseases. They developed original ways of giving both water and vapor baths. The vapor bath was the most commonly used, and it was followed by a plunge into a cold stream. This is similar to the custom so widely practiced at the present time in Finland, of jumping into either the snow or ice-cold water following a hot sauna bath.

The native Mexicans also use a hot-air bath (sauna). They confine themselves in a brick house that is heated by a furnace located on the outside. They seem to have implicit confidence in the efficiency of the sauna bath to destroy disease, using it with much success when ill.

Water is one of the most powerful and yet one of the simplest remedies that can be used by an intelligent mother who understands the effects of hot and cold on the body. If you cleanse and nourish your body properly, and leave nature to itself, it will renovate and heal the body.

Lately, people have been led to believe that there are remarkable virtues in certain spring waters (this refers to water from certain hot mineral springs that is used for external treatments). The claim that these waters are possessed of a miraculous healing power is not true. The healing virtue is in the moist heat that is obtained from the water.


Unfortunately, in the early days the reputation of water as a remedy was injured because people such as Vincent Priesnitz used it to extremes. Such practitioners did not understand the human body, the use of hot and cold water, or the useful and powerful reactions that are produced in the body when it is properly used. People were led to believe that it was a cure-all, and that cold water was the only remedy no matter what the condition of the disease might be. Rest, pure air, nourishing and simple food, sunlight, and exercise are of equal importance to water in all cases. Although water is not a specific, it is one of the most valuable remedies. This is true not only of water, but also of all the other natural remedies. There may be a specific remedy for a particular disease, but there is not one and only one remedy for every disease. Several remedial agents must be combined to suit the condition, and not a single one used to the exclusion of all the others. But even so, water is an important agency in the treatment of nearly every disease when it is correctly applied and used with other forms of treatment.