The Historic Healing Power of the Beach

When doctors prescribed sun and sea, to improve circulation and contract tumors
"5505 Don't Be Afraid," reads a postcard from 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)

Long before the beach was a theater of bodies stuffed into tiny suits, exposing as much skin as possible to the sun, beach-going was often a strictly medical undertaking. For centuries we looked to the sand and surf as a fully-stocked pharmacy. But first, we had to get over our fear of the sea.

Any 17th-century European pirate could tell you terrifying tales of sea monsters dwelling in the dark waters. A pirate was about as likely to swim in the sea as a pilot is to jump out of his plane.

“In the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, the boiling sea is where great awful beasts come from,” says Dr. Robert Ritchie a senior research associate at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, who is researching a book on the history of beach-going and seaside resorts. “The fear of the sea has biblical origins with the great flood destroying all creatures. As it retreats, it rips away the land leaving all kinds of detritus behind.”

In fact, no one thought of the sea as a particularly friendly place. And, as the gateway to the sea, the beach wasn’t so appealing either. In modern Europe, only peasants sought refuge from the heat in the cool seawater. And so the beach remained mostly empty until the English looked around and began to consider the medicinal potential of their chilly national shoreline.

Eighteenth century British high society suffered from a mess of maladies. Fevers, digestive complaints, melancholia, nervous tics, tremors, and even stupidity were the epidemics of the day. The pressures of urban life, pollution, and the general deterioration of society were obviously to blame. Enlightenment physicians began to consider new remedies for old ailments spurred by the new emphasis on science and experimentation. Their new wonder drug was… water. Cold sea water, specifically.

Beginning in the late 16th century, English physicians endorsed the healing effects of cold water for everything from heat stroke to melancholy. It was believed that a brisk shock of cold water stimulated the entire body, promoting the circulation of humors and even contracting tumors. As Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker lay out in their book, The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth, sea bathing as a form of therapy brought together the fear of the sea with the hope of its healing powers.

By the mid-18th century a standard therapy was developed, which resembled waterboarding far more than a spa treatment. It involved dunking society ladies in the freezing sea repeatedly until the twin effects of cold and suffocation caused terror and panic (read: revitalization). The frightened patient would then be hoisted from the water in her soaking flannel smock, revived with vigorous back rubs and feet warmers, and deposited on dry land for a cup of tea. The adrenaline from the shock of cold was thought to have soothing effects on the body, calming anxiety and restoring the body-soul balance. The patient would repeat her regimen every morning for the next several weeks of her therapeutic seaside sojourn. The men got to take their therapy naked.

It wasn’t enough to nearly drown in the sea to relieve your stresses and ailments; you had to drink it too. 18th-century physicians and scientists looked back to the classical texts of Hippocrates and Celsus and revived the medical practice of drinking seawater (classically sweetened with honey, or, as the British for some reason preferred it, diluted with milk). In 1750 Dr. Richard Russell published a treatise, A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption, in which he advocated using seawater for bathing and drinking. In one case, Russell describes a man suffering from leprosy; a “most troublesome case.” The patient’s head and entire body was “sprinkled over with leprous spots.” But after being prescribed to “drink a pint of sea water every morning during nine months, without any intervals” the patient recovered. The regimens also usually involved bathing in seawater to strengthen and invigorate the body. As seawater drinking became more popular, these kinds of case studies proliferated. The miracle of the sea seemed to provide infinite therapies. Naturally, someone was going to capitalize on it. Enter, the resort industrial complex.

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Adee Braun is a writer in New York City. Her work has appeared on, Lapham's Quarterly, and Flavorwire.

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