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

Priestley and His Bubbled Water

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the use of natural mineral waters was their effervescence. Waters taken from the effervescent springs and kept too long lost their “mineral spirit”; that is, they went flat. Even when fresh, the first artificial waters did not possess this “spirit.” While not all natural springs possessed the bubbling properties that drew health seekers to Pyrmont, Vichy, and Seltzer, both the bubbles’ evanescence and the changed taste of flat waters suggested that waters irrevocably lost an important quality when imitated or taken far from their source.

It was precisely this issue that made Priestley’s work on mineral water so significant. In working to restore the mineral spirit, Priestley was able to build on the work of numerous predecessors. In the 1720s the cleric and physiologist Stephen Hales had developed the pneumatic trough, which Priestley would later use to manipulate pure gases, as a way of measuring the “airs” created by the physiological processes. In the 1750s chemist and physician Joseph Black identified the substance we now call carbon dioxide as “fixed air,” and in the 1760s physician William Brownrigg (1711–1800) argued that the mineral spirit of mineral waters was identical to the bubbles produced by fermentation and to the “choak-damp” that threatened miners.

For Priestley, recent studies of fixed air suggested further therapeutic possibilities. Priestley’s recent candidacy for the post of ship’s naturalist on explorer James Cook’s second voyage had brought the British Navy’s crippling medical problem, scurvy, to Priestley’s attention. Since recent work on rotting meat by physician David MacBride (1726–1778) had seemed to suggest that fixed air arrested putrefaction, Priestley argued that drinking water impregnated with fixed air should not only cure scurvy, then thought to be a kind of rot, but also other diseases associated with putrefaction, including ulcerated lungs and cancers. Meeting with the approval of the British Navy, Priestley’s apparatus for bubbling fixed air through water were loaded onto Cook’s ships.

Three years after the publication of Priestley’s pamphlet entitled “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air,” British physician John Mervyn Nooth presented the Royal Society with the Nooth apparatus, a vertical arrangement of three glass vessels that aerated water in the central vessel by infusing it with fixed air from below. The Nooth apparatus became the model for the carbonation devices used in drugstores. The famous chemist Benjamin Silliman used Nooth’s device when he introduced commercially produced mineral waters to the United States, opening shops at first near his home at Yale University and later in New York and Philadelphia. In the 1780s another contact of Priestley’s, the Swiss jeweler and amateur scientist Jacob Schweppe, rapidly took over the London market with artificial sparkling mineral waters made using a force pump. The syphon—what we would now call a seltzer bottle—appeared in Great Britain in 1837.

A Second Wave of Mineral Waters

Like many of his competitors Schweppe added to the medicinal value of his tonics by mixing into them herbal syrups—one of which evolved into a drink immortalized as Schweppe’s Ginger Ale. Over the course of the 19th century consumers became accustomed to a series of medicinal flavors, from ginger and kola nut to the quinine that gave the gin-and-tonic its distinctive taste and protected British imperial administrators from malaria. These new products were billed both as beverages and as medicinals, under names such as “buffalo mead” and “imperial nerve tonic” that gradually lost their medicinal meaning. Coca-Cola, originally billed as a stimulant patent medicine (although its notorious cocaine content was negligible), is perhaps the most famous example of this transformation.

Mineral water bathing underwent a similar shift in meaning. Despite the competition offered by artificial mineral waters from the late 18th century onward, visits to spas and mineral springs remained an important part of therapy well into the 20th century, as evidenced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s well-publicized reliance on the waters of Warm Springs, Georgia. However, like the seaside vacation, which was originally designed to take advantage of the curative powers of sea air, spa visits increasingly became solely recreational rather than therapeutic.

Joseph Priestley’s Pyrmont water did not succeed as a cure for scurvy (although his colleague Brownrigg proved far more successful, with a carbonation device that mixed chalk with lime juice). But examining Priestley’s efforts both helps us find the roots of modern industry and outlines the shape of a complex medical past. In sipping a glass of ginger ale, seltzer water, or Perrier, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of therapy.

Emily Pawley is a Ph.D. candidate in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is now a Haas and Neville fellow at CHF.