Powerful Effervescence

French poster advertising the waters of the Lagoutte spring of Vichy. Color lithograph by Georges Blott, 1898

French poster advertising the waters of the Lagoutte spring of Vichy. Color lithograph by Georges Blott, 1898

Although Hippocratic medicine temporarily declined during the Middle Ages, the use of mineral springs continued. “Holy wells,” first associated with pagan divinities and later reassigned to Christian saints, took the place of the Roman baths. The Renaissance revival of Greek medicine brought old springs back into prominence. Later, during the early modern period, the rise of so-called chymical medicine produced new justifications for old practices by encouraging the therapeutic prescription of minerals and metals.

By the 18th century springs had become places of fashionable resort, where genteel and aristocratic visitors met to dance, promenade, and “take the waters.” In Bath a seasonal crowd of tourists drank and soaked in what we now know to be a mildly radioactive soup of potassium, lead, iron, strontium, calcium, magnesium, bismuth, and sulfur. Indeed, English towns like Harrogate and Epsom existed solely to support their springs, and therapeutic drinking waters from Carlsbad (in what is now the Czech Republic), Eger (in Hungary), Seltzer, Spa, and Pyrmont were regularly shipped around Europe in bottles.

Manufactured Waters

Given the immense sums invested in and derived from mineral springs, it is no surprise that generations of chemists, including such well-known natural philosophers as Robert Boyle, Friedrich Hoffmann, and Stephen Hales, attempted to explain what made each spring unique. Moreover, when the earliest chemical analyses revealed familiar materials like iron, niter, vitriol, sea salt, and alum, it was certain that attempts to imitate or even outdo nature would soon follow.

Perhaps the most spectacular of these imitations was “the Duke’s Bagnio,” or “New Spaw.” This Turkish bath, established on London’s Long Acre by Samuel Haworth, the duke of York’s physician, featured artificial mineral waters that appeared to bubble from the ground. Soon after the opening of the Bagnio in 1685, Robert Boyle published an essay on “the imitation of Natural Medicinal Waters, by chymical and other wayes,” which he intended to “help the Physician to guess at the quality and quantity of other ingredients that impregnate the Natural Water proposed.” In 1698 the botanist Nehemiah Grew commercialized Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) as a simple and lasting re-creation of the mineral waters at Epsom, then drunk as a purgative and famed for their efficacy against ulcers. To this day Epsom salts are used as a foot soak and drunk as a remedy for constipation.

By the early 18th century dozens of chemists and physicians were concocting (and patients were drinking) bottled artificial mineral waters made from smelter’s slag, potash, cream of tartar, quicklime, and alum. As the century progressed, manufacturers of artificial waters began to argue that their products had certain advantages over natural substances. Not only was artificial mineral water available outside the “seasons” of the spas, but it also could be kept free of the poisonous substances that sometimes plagued natural waters. They could also be made at higher concentrations, allowing patients to obtain the same benefits without requiring them to drink doses as large as 16 pints a day.

This host of imitations left physicians who practiced at mineral springs in a quandary. While they appreciated chemical analysis as a method of demonstrating the virtues of their springs, they were understandably nervous that analysis made replication possible. Previous theories, such as the idea that different mineral waters were “natural specifics,” medicines created by nature for man’s benefit as evidence of God’s beneficent design, seemed to offer support for claims of the superiority of natural mineral waters. This ambivalence resulted in public debates played out in pamphlets and medical journals: did mineral waters work because they contained valuable chemicals, what we might call “active ingredients”? Or were they only efficacious as complex wholes, emerging from natural sources, created by underground processes that humans could not hope to imitate?