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Doctors Once Prescribed Showers for Mental Illness

By the turn of the 19th century, doctors were homing in on the brain as the site of madness. So instead of plunging the entire body into water, some started directing cold showers onto patients’ heads to cool their “hot brains.” At its most simplistic, the technique requires nothing more than an attendant pouring water over the head of a restrained patient.

Alexander Morison’s apparatus for giving the douche (Morison / Internet Archive)

Physicians devised more elaborate mechanical showers, too. The Scottish physician Alexander Morison’s douche resembled a pod, in which a patient sat with his or her head poking out of a hole in the top. A stream of water poured down onto the patient from above. The Belgian physician Joseph Guislan designed a shower with its water reservoir set on an asylum’s roof. The patient sat bound to a chair, unable to see the attendant who would start the shower. “Shock and fear was part of the therapy,” says Stephanie Cox, a lecturer at Auckland University of Technology who authored a recent paper on the use of showers in asylums.

Later, hospitals also put patients in warm baths that lasted hours or even days. They wrapped patients tightly in wet sheets, then wrapped another rubber sheet around them, and let them sweat for hours. Physicians had various scientific-seeming explanations for such therapies: It relieved congestion in the brain. It eliminated toxins that cause insanity. “There were different post-hoc theories to try to make sense of it,” says Joel Braslow, a psychiatrist and history professor at UCLA. It is not, he adds, terribly different from how doctors try to explain antidepressants today. The drugs seem to work, but how exactly they work on the level of neurochemistry is still unclear, even as millions of people take them every day. “We see they have a certain effect on behavior and we see they have a biological effect and we try to argue backward,” Braslow says.

In his book, Mental Ills and Bodily Cures, Braslow writes that in hydrotherapy’s day, “a body of research based on precise measurements of parameters such as blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate, and differential blood count lent support to this science.” Hospitals boasted of their expensive hydrotherapy facilities in annual reports.

Examples of 19th-century hydrotherapy (Shew / Hydropathy / Internet Archive)

At home, people were also experimenting with the new possibilities offered by modern plumbing. In her book All the Modern Conveniences, the historian Maureen Ogle writes of the “sheer whimsy” of showers that proliferated in homes in the early 19th century. “People were in a time not constrained by municipal ordinances,” she says, and bathroom fixtures had not yet become standardized. They had showers that aimed only at the torso and showers powered by foot pedals.

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