1770 | Bath

Germ Bath

Tobias Smollett refuses to take the waters.

Dear Dick,

I have done with the waters; therefore, your advice comes a day too late. I grant that physic is no mystery of your making. I know it is a mystery in its own nature and, like other mysteries, requires a strong gulp of faith to make it go down. Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch­­——, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye was a child full of scrofulous ulcers carried in the arms of one of the guides under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust. Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence? Good heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! We know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating. To purify myself from all such contamination, I went to the Duke of Kingston’s private bath, and there I was almost suffocated for want of free air; the place was so small and the steam so stifling.

After all, if the intention is no more than to wash the skin, I am convinced that simple element is more effectual than any water impregnated with salt and iron, which, being astringent, will certainly contract the pores and leave a kind of crust upon the surface of the body. But I am now as much afraid of drinking as of bathing; for after a long conversation with the doctor about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me that the patients in the pump room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beverage is every day quaffed by the drinkers, medicated with the sweat and dirt and dandruff and the abominable discharges of various kinds from twenty different diseased bodies parboiling in the kettle below. In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the abbey green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell, and upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter were found covered by an old burying ground belonging to the abbey, through which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage, so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the pump room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath. I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach! Determined, as I am, against any farther use of the Bath waters, this consideration would give me little disturbance if I could find anything more pure, or less pernicious, to quench my thirst; but although the natural springs of excellent water are seen gushing spontaneous on every side from the hills that surround us, the inhabitants, in general, make use of well water so impregnated with niter or alum or some other villainous mineral that it is equally ungrateful to the taste and mischievous to the constitution. It must be owned, indeed, that here, in Milsham Street, we have a precarious and scanty supply from the hill, which is collected in an open basin in the Circus, liable to be defiled with dead dogs, cats, rats, and every species of nastiness, which the rascally populace may throw into it from mere wantonness and brutality.

Well, there is no nation that drinks so hoggishly as the English.

Contributor

Tobias Smollett

From The Expedition of Hum­phry Clinker. The Scottish author of picaresque novels also held a medical degree and served as a surgeon’s second mate in the British navy. Nearly twenty years before he questioned the medicinal properties of the waters at Bath in Humphry, Smollett published “An Essay on the External Use of Water,” in which he disavowed the benefits of the Bath Corporation’s sulfuric waters. The corporation showed little interest in making his suggested improvements.