It is very hard to know exactly what is in all of our collections. Some items are used frequently, and some items only very occasionally come off the shelf, or out the drawer, to be seen for their value and interest. One such item was requested the other day: a prescription for the use of Bath Waters from 1675.
The prescription was written by Sir Alexander Fraizer (or Frazer) to an unknown patient, and gives directions for the drinking of large quantities of pump water along with taking doses of other medicines. This was combined with a bathing regimen for a course of treatment lasting about three weeks.
The treatment starts with drinking a “purging powder” with infused in “burnt wine”, i.e. brandy, on the first day. This is followed the next morning by rising at 5am to drink three quarts of pump water (6 pints, or nearly 3.5 litres) in the space of a hour or hour and a half – the first qunit of which to contain a paper of “Sal Prunella” (saltpetre or potassium nitrate which acts as a diuretic). So far this cure doesn’t sound very palatable. I can’t even drink one small glass of the Bath waters, let alone six pints of it. And this part of the cure goes on for a whole week – though the patient may also be required to take some Grana Angelica, a laxative also known as Scotch Pills, if necessary. Then the treatment moves on to the next stage.
Bathing now starts, in the Cross or Queen’s Baths, beginning with half an hour before drinking a pint of Bath water, waiting a half hour then drinking another pint. Then off you go to “sweat plentifully” in your bed. This phase lasts four days as you repeat this process. Then you have to repeat the whole process all over again from the beginning, before you can ” take the pill marked C.” Sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland. The treatment was intended to have a purgative effect – scouring the insides – whilst the bathing scourged the outside, hence the purging-powder, laxatives and diuretics included in the process. On the other hand, the recommended diet at the end remained quite generous adn would appear to have the opposite effect: mutton, veal, rabbit, chicken, partridge, trout, mullet, sole, crab and lobster with white wine or sherry to wash it all down. I’m not sure which makes me more uncomfortable, the treatment or the diet.
This prescription is one of the earliest surviving which recommends the drinking of the waters alongside bathing in them. The scourging of the insides was a bit like a seventeenth century detox. The bathing was also believed to allow the absorption of beneficial chemicals from the water – a process we now know to be impossible, but the regular bathing habits probably had as beneficial an effect as any intended by the prescription.
The reputation of the baths had grown through the seventeenth century, attracting these doctors and their patients, including Royalty. There was an over-abundance of doctors working in Bath at this time – Thomas Guidott, Robert Peirce, William Oliver (Sr), Tobias Venner to name a few. Many of them only practised in the town during the season when the city was inundated with visitors, and a doctor could make a good living from them. During the rest of the year many of them operated practices elsewhere – Venner’s main practice was in North Petherton. In 1663 King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza came to Bath accompanied by their physicians, respectively Sir Charles Scarborough and Sir Alexander Fraizer. They stayed in the Abbey House next to the King’s Bath, then occupied by Dr. Robert Peirce, a great proponent of and promoter of the waters. Fraizer learnt about the thermal waters, how they were used and their believed composition from Peirce. He continued to correspond with Peirce and started sending his patients to Bath, presumably with prescriptions similar to this one, as an alternative to his previous recommendation of the Bourbon spa in France.
Fraizer qualified at Montpellier in 1635, and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1641. Four years later he first attended Charles as physician whilst in the west of England. Through the wars and Charles’ exile Fraizer continued to work for the King, carrying messages into England and Scotland when such an undertaking was quite perilous. He even accompanied Charles to Scotland in 1650-51 during an abortive rebellion led by the Duke of Hamilton, during which time Charles was crowned King of Great Britain at Scone. Fraizer treated all the members of the Royal family, some more successfully than others, and would probably have had private patients to supplement his income. Fraizer died in 1681, having married three times, his son Charles also becoming a Physician-in-Ordinary to Charles II in 1677.
Unfortunately, there’s no indication of the patient who underwent this treatment, so I cannot follow up on the success (or failure) of this prescription. The document did pass through the hands of the Fortescue family at some point – the red seal at the bottom of the page belongs to the Earls of Fortescue – but I have no way of confirming the date of this particular stamp. So there’s a lot unknown about why the prescription survived when so many others have not. I’m just glad it did as it provides a small window into the expanding world of health tourism that was beginning to blossom in the seventeenth century.
All images copyright Bath in Time-Bath Central Library unless otherwise stated.
Rolls, Roger, Diseased, douched and doctored : thermal springs, spa doctors and rheumatic diseases, London Publishing Partnership: 2015, 978-1907994098
Dingwall, Helen M., ‘Fraizer, Sir Alexander, first baronet (1607?-1681), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP: 2004