Insanity Washed Down the Drain: How Water was Used in Mental Hospitals


(Image of a patient in a bath being spoon-fed by an on-duty nurse. Photo credit: Lensvid)


Water has played a prominent role in religion for centuries and is referenced in the bible many times. It is no wonder that people once depended on water as a healing agent. In the middle ages there were instances where individuals suffering from a mental illness were dunked repeatedly into holy wells. As time went on, water became one of the most common tools for treating mental disorders.

One of the earliest instances of hydrotherapy involved a 17th century Flemish physician, Jean Baptist Von Helmont (Zhang). He had heard a story once about a man who escaped an asylum and ran like a maniac into a pond. The man almost drowned in the process, but once he emerged, he was thought to be cured (Zhang). Taking inspiration from this, Helmont began emerging his patients in water, drowning a few in the process (Zhang). He came to believe that full immersion in cold water had the potential of “killing the mad idea” (Smith). Prior to the 19th century, most of these therapies occurred outside in bodies of water, and were open to the view of the public.

Once plumbing was developed in the 19th century, hydrotherapy treatments were moved indoors. Creative devices were developed during this period, some of which included bathing boxes, showers, and dunking contraptions (Smith). Many professionals thought that hydrotherapy treatments would have a calming affect on the patients, but some uncomfortable procedures also occasionally served as a reprimand for unsatisfactory behavior.

One common treatment was a covered bath where patients would stretch out in a tub with a canvas covering the top. The water was typically kept close to body temperature and the patient would rest their heads on pads behind them. Some patients would sit in these baths for days and were expected to eat and sleep while submerged (Hubbard 642). Another popular treatment were wet packs, which could be either hot or cold. A patient would be wrapped in layers of wet blankets and left to lay out for a short while (Hubbard 643). Sometimes patients were sprayed with jets of water, while other times, unlucky patients experienced the discomfort of the bain de surprise, or the bath of surprise. This is exactly what it sounds like. A patient would be dunked into a pool of water unexpectedly to shock the brain.


(Bathtubs and showers from Oregon State Hospital. Photo Credit: Pg 67 Christopher Payne’s Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals)

Hydrotherapy is still used to some extent today in the form of spa treatments. People pay high prices to wade around in salt baths and the like. By the 20th century, hydrotherapy treatments in mental hospitals quickly fell out of favor due to the rise of anti-psychotic drugs. As hospitals became abandoned, the tubs and showers were left to sit, serving as dusty reminders of a time since past.

If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time



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