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Wash and Be Healed, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Introduction

Cayleff, S. (1991). Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health (Health Society And Policy) . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Cayleff (1991) wrote this book to give readers a comprehensive perspective on alternative medicine during the 19th century. In Wash and Be Healed the author explores the various practices, institutions, theories, and medical and social philosophies of the water-cure movement, and the women who took the cure. Her book is placed against the backdrop of 19th century reform networks, which opposed the water-cure movement. Nineteenth-century medicine adopted an extreme orthodox approach to medicine, which by its very definition frowned upon the therapeutic nature of hydropathy. In addition, hydropathy was closely associated with social activism; more specifically with female activism, thereby creating a greater divide between its medical potential and the medical mind frame of the 19th century. In essence, Wash and Be Healed attempts to provide a comprehensive history of healing and health; one that encompasses alternative therapies and does not thrive on the solitude of allopathic medicine alone.

Brief Summary

Cayleff (1991) examines the development and collapse of the water-cure movement. The 19th century has been historically characterized as an era devoted to dramatic healthcare remedies; for instance, healthcare leaders at that time believed in the power of leeching, purging, and bloodletting. It is no surprise then, that hydropathy was celebrated as a more pleasant alternative to the aforementioned remedies. Hydropathy propagated not only an alternative to medical care, but significant lifestyle changes. In addition to a series of cold water applications, hydropathy advocated the improvement of dress, diet, and exercise. As such, it challenged patients to adopt reformed lifestyles. Cayleff (1991) explores the development of 19th century medicine, the growth of hydropathy within an allopathic environment, and the effect it had on the women who supported its rise.

Critical Assessment

Cayleff (1991) argues that the effect of hydropathy and its impact on 19th century medicine was overpowered allopathic medicine. Hydropathy, or the water-cure movement, defied orthodox medicinal practice. In addition to offering a more comfortable alternative to cure disease, this therapy also gave women an opportunity to improve their overall lifestyles. Hydropathy is the practice of applying cold water, internally and externally, in an effort to preserve health and cure disease. It was also a sect of mid-19th-century medicine that evoked discontent with orthodox medical practice. The water-cure movement reached pivotal heights during the 1860s when an influx of middle-class patients began to develop a better understanding of health care and personal hygiene.

The movement originated as a reaction against orthodox medicinal practices of the 17th and 18th centuries. German farmer Vincent Priessnitz discovered the potent effect of clean water on flesh wounds. Priessnitz broke several ribs in a farming accident in the early 1820s; his doctor diagnosed his condition as incurable. However, the farmer took it upon himself to treat his injuries with wet wraps and within a few months he was cured. Astounded by the effects of clean water on wounds, Priessnitz initiated a campaign in which he praised the effects of water treatments. His idea caught fire during the mid-19th-century and spread rapidly through America. A large group of feminists and early abolitionists supported this form of treatment.

Through a series of popular manuals and periodicals and the establishment of water-cure institutions across the United States, society began to support the movement more enthusiastically. The water-cure movement appealed to many people because it promoted self-reliance and autonomy among its practitioners, while simultaneously allowing them to participate in a communal healing experience. One particularly important aspect of the water-cure movement is that it created a type of alliance with other 19th century reform movements, such as dress reform, vegetarianism, and temperance.

Cayleff (1991) chooses to focus on the impact of hydropathy on women in particular, although the movement attracted an equal number of male and female participants. The author’s fascination with hydropathy’s effect on women was guided by the era’s seemingly misguided notions of treacherous female reproductive crises. At the time, female physiology was viewed as a potential threat to a woman’s health. However, hydropathy embraced female health from a more optimistic perspective. The water-cure movement propagated that women, who dressed better and who practiced improved personal hygiene, could play a more important role in society. In essence, the water-cure movement empowered women. Female hydropathy patients were, for the first time, placed in charge of their own health, and the health of their families. Many women were also encouraged to become hydropathy practitioners, further aiding in their independence. Orthodox medical practices at the time often refused female doctors; however, water-cure establishments welcomed female practitioners. As mentioned before, numerous feminists and prominent abolitionists supported he water-cure movement. Among them were Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Harriett Beecher, Calvin Stowe, and Alice James. One aspect that made hydropathy so attractive is that practitioners could visit water cures for any given length of time. In fact, some lived in at water-cure establishments for years at a time.

In her book, Cayleff (1991) argues that live-in cures offered effective therapeutic treatments to professional women and reform activists that were free from public demands and scrutiny. It essentially gave people a legitimate opportunity to focus on their personal wellbeing. In addition, live-in cures opened doors of communication between like-minded spirits, away from the demands and isolation of their home lives. So in addition to restored physical health, movement supporters experienced new companionships and rejuvenated relationships.

Cayleff (1991) offers a comprehensive overview on the rise and fall of a movement that simultaneously improved the health and wellbeing of society and empowered women. The water-cure movement became defragmented by the late 19th century when founding members began to quibble over professional ideologies and when mainstream medicine began to favor improved medicinal practices. Also, it was difficult to prove the effectiveness of hydropathy from a scientific perspective.

Despite the movement’s steady decline during the latter part of the 29th century, Cayleff (1991) illuminates the fact that the practice of hydropathy influenced modern medicine. It continued to survive under the guise of hydro-therapy and paved the way for modern hygienic practice and improved diets. In fact, hydropathy reoccurred during the 1960s and 1970s. People during these decades propagated individualism and hydropathy offered them a means to be treated as such, instead of a communal collective. This further supports Cayleff’s argument that hydropathy did not only open a new avenue of medicinal care, it also played a very significant role in the establishment of a way of thought and a way of life. Choosing to be treated through water-cure therapies was a blatant statement against mainstream medicine, and for personal wellbeing.

Conclusion

Based on information presented in Wash and Be Healed, water-cure therapy played a significant role in modern healthcare reform. The author used the voices of her Victorian subjects to offer a convincing case in favor of hydropathy.

Cayleff (1991) is an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. She has written a thought-provoking account of the water-cure movement and its subsequent influence on mid-19th-century women. The book is well organized and written as a academic narrative that would appeal to a variety of readers. However, at times it seems as if the author relies too heavily on internalists’ accounts of the movement, rather than on historical or medical facts. By example, Cayleff recounts ‘conversion narratives’ to support the movement’s appeal; however, all these accounts appeared in literate produced by the water-cure movement. As such, these accounts’ editorial direction remains questionable. Many of her supporting arguments would have been more believable if she utilized other sources. However, regardless of this one aspect, Cayleff offers an interesting and comprehensive insight into American health reform.

This book will be of interest to historians of women’s history, medicine, and health reform of 19th century medicine in America.

References

Cayleff, S. (1991). Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health (Health Society And Policy) . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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