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Healing Waters - Part I: Spas

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 15.3, September 2005

In various cultures, water has been touted for its curative power-attributed to its mineral properties, thermal effects, and even supposed supernatural qualities. Here we look at ancient baths and later spas; in Part II we discuss legendary “fountains of youth” and reputed miraculous healing shrines like that at Lourdes, France.

Ancient Baths

Hydrotherapy-the internal or external use of water for treating disease-is among the earliest “healing” practices. Indeed, drinking or bathing in springs, streams, or pools for therapeutic purposes predates recorded history.

There is archaeological evidence of mineral springs in Asia during the Bronze Age (circa 3000 b.c.), and biblical references allude to the practice. For example Joshua (19:35) refers to the city of Hammath (from the Hebrew word for “hot springs”) located at Tiberius in Israel, one of the world’s oldest spas. And II Kings 5:10 tells of Elisha instructing a Syrian to wash seven times in the Jordan River to cure his “leprosy.”

In ancient Greece springs were believed to have supernatural powers because they were supposedly the dwelling places of gods. Therapeutic centers called Asclepieia-after Asclepius, the mythological God of Health-were built at mineral springs throughout the Greek realm. The Romans followed the practice, translating the deity’s name to Aesculapius, and establishing baths across their empire (Swanner 1988, 16-20). One was at Bath, England, so named for its hot springs attended by a great temple.

In the Americas, the native peoples also believed in the miraculous curative powers of mineral waters. Aztec emperor Montezuma was carried on a litter from Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) across a mountain to a spa called Agua Hedionda. There he bathed in the invigorating spring and sipped the waters to recuperate from his strenuous life. In 1605, the conquering Catholic Spaniards established a health-cure community at the site, transforming it into a spa that later became fashionable to both Europeans and Americans (Swanner 1988, 20).

The Mohawks of the Iroquois Nation, in what is now Saratoga County, New York, held the mineral springs of that area to be sacred, a gift of their great deity Manitou. According to spa physician Grace Maguire Swanner (1988, 20, 95), they attempted to keep the existence of the springs a secret from the White invaders.

Later Spas

In 1326 an ironmaster in southeastern Belgium learned of a secluded spring that was reputed to have healing properties. When he received relief from his own ailments, he founded a health resort there named Spa, from an old Walloon (French dialect) word meaning “fountain” (Swanner 1988, 14). It gained fame in the sixteenth century for both its water and climate, and the term spa began to be applied to similar resorts. By the eighteenth century, Spa had become “the most fashionable resort in Europe for the medicinal use of such waters” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1960, s.v. Spa; see also Collier’s Encyclopedia 1993, s.v. Spa).

In my travels I have visited several famous spas-both in Europe and the United States. In Italy, for example, during the October 8-10, 2004, World Skeptics Congress in Abano Terme (near Padua), I stayed at one of the numerous spa-hotels in the city, which calls itself “the world’s spa capital.” The naturally heated springs there were important in Roman times, according to reports by Pliny the Elder (Colli 2004, 7; Abano n.d.). Today, thermal- and mud-bath health and beauty treatments promise that “You can regain your vigor, relax and achieve that lost sense of well-being” (Colli 2004, 6; Abano n.d.). While I did not partake of the treatments, I felt reinvigorated by simply being in Abano!

Another historic spa site I encountered, along with Italian paranormal investigator Luigi Garlaschelli, was at Pozzuoli, only a few miles from Naples and Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. In fact, the ancient healing waters at Pozzuoli are actually in a volcano! Known as the Vulcano Solfatara, it formed 4,000 years ago and last erupted in 1198. Today it spouts sulphurous steam, small “volcanoes” of hot mud, and jets of bubbling sand (Benvenuto 2004, 15).

A well in the crater became famous in the late Middle Ages for its mineral waters that supposedly cured sterility and ulcers. “Natural Saunas” elsewhere in the crater yielded sulphurous vapors that were considered beneficial for respiratory ailments, and hot mud was used to treat rheumatism (Il Vulcano n.d.). The crater is in the region known as the Phlegraean Fields, which contains thermo-mineral waters, anciently said to be capable of “healing wounds both old and new, relieving the whole body, ridding the heart of evil and arthritis, slimming heavy limbs, making the sad rejoice” (Benvenuto 2004, 7).

Germany is rife with spas. In 2002, I traveled with skeptic Martin Mahner to southern Bavaria to visit one, the spa at Bad Tšlz, a colorful, baroque town at the foothills of the Alps (figure 1). There in 1845 a farmhand found a spring, and, in time, the realization that people who lived in the area had no incidents of goiter led to the discovery that the water contained iodine, an essential element needed by the thyroid gland (Bad Tšlz n.d.).

Figure 1: German spa at Bad Tšlz, Germany, is shown on a 1939 postcard. (Author’s collection)

Figure 1: German spa at Bad Tšlz, Germany, is shown on a 1939 postcard. (Author’s collection)

Such cause-and-effect evidence represents the “nucleus of truth” that may be behind some spa therapies, according to a physician and professor of spa treatments I interviewed in Munich, Peter Kršling (2002). Germany, he observed, has approximately 300 spas, all licensed by the federal government, and each having a medical staff including a Badearzt ("spa doctor”).

Elsewhere in Europe and the United States, waters containing other inclusions (such as lithium, used to treat manic depression,1 and radon, a radioactive gaseous element reputedly effective in treating rheumatism) were promoted and, of course, thus increased the patronage at those spas.

American spas followed the popularity of the European resorts, and I have been able to visit, at one time or another, many of these. In fact, the historic former old Cole Hotel in my hometown of West Liberty, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, was a sort of poor-man’s spa, though its heyday was before my time. A 1911 advertisement for its “Health-giving Mineral Waters” typifies the claims of the era: “The water contains 25 grains of solid matter to the gallon, composed mainly of Carbonates of Calcium, Magnesium and Sodium, and traces of Chlorides and Sulphates of Sodium and Potassium, and a trace of Carbonate of Strontium.” The analysis, signed by “Alfred M. Peters, Chemist,” concluded, “This water is very wholesome and has great medicinal value” (Nickell 1988, 98).

Figure 2. “Island Spouter” depicted on a 1941 postcard is a natural geyser in the state park at Saratoga Springs, New York. (Author’s collection)

Figure 2. “Island Spouter” depicted on a 1941 postcard is a natural geyser in the state park at Saratoga Springs, New York. (Author’s collection)

Actually, all except distilled water contained dissolved salts, and it became usual to set the level at fifty grains per gallon (twice that of the Cole Hotel water) in order to justify the designation mineral water (Swanner 1988, 32).

America’s “Queen of the Spas” was the celebrated Saratoga Springs of New York. By 1783 George Washington had sipped water from one of the several springs in the area, High Rock Spring, and later recommended it to one of his former Revolutionary War officers as a remedy for rheumatism. By 1790 taverns there were housing guests who were seeking the reputedly health-giving waters. In the 1820s spas (along with summer vacations) were becoming fashionable among the wealthy, and none would become more popular than Saratoga (White 1985, 86-87; Swanner 1988, 105-106).

The crude early taverns there were followed by larger and larger hotels, medical offices, and, by the 1880s, Dr. Strong’s Sanatorium, advertised as “A popular resort for health, change, rest or recreation of the year.” Amenities included “Elevator, electric bells, steam, open fireplaces, sun parlor and promenade on the roof, croquet, lawn tennis.” Family prayers were offered daily, “at no additional charge” (Swanner 1988, 128).

An article in the London Times of December 9, 1887, portrayed the spa in its grandeur:

Everybody who is anybody comes to Saratoga, because here can be found an aggregation of people of a character to be met nowhere else.

The throng is essentially cosmopolitan, and comes from all parts of the country, besides many who cross the Atlantic. . . . Saratoga is the place in America to see diamonds. Their glitter dazzles the eye at every turn, as they sparkle under the brilliant electric lights illuminating the evening scene. . . .

Figure 3. Various mineral-water bottles include one (front) from Saratoga Springs, New York. Others (rear, from left) are mineral water from Olympian Springs, Kentucky; Buffalo Lythia Water from Buffalo Lythia Springs, Virginia; and a drink from Cloverdale Spring, Newville, Pennsylvania (containing mineral water, Lithia, and lime flavor). Also shown is an antique drinking cup purchased near Sharon Springs, New York. (Author’s collection)

Figure 3. Various mineral-water bottles include one (front) from Saratoga Springs, New York. Others (rear, from left) are mineral water from Olympian Springs, Kentucky; Buffalo Lythia Water from Buffalo Lythia Springs, Virginia; and a drink from Cloverdale Spring, Newville, Pennsylvania (containing mineral water, Lithia, and lime flavor). Also shown is an antique drinking cup purchased near Sharon Springs, New York. (Author’s collection)

“Fine equipages” drove people about the area, and certain eateries provided “elaborate fish and game dinners at high prices” (American 1887).

The springs still flow at Saratoga (which I toured on one of my trips to search for the Lake Champlain monster [Nickell 2003]). I drank some of the salty, naturally carbonated water and sought out the famous Island Spouter-spewing from a tiny island in Geyser Creek in the nearby state park-shown in figure 2.

I also stopped at historic Ballston Spa, which had been flourishing as a resort while Saratoga was yet a wilderness. Some of its numerous springs-including one supposedly discovered through a seance with Benjamin Franklin, and two with a high lithium content-provided water that was bottled and sold for its allegedly healthful properties (Swanner 1988, 89-94). (Some unscrupulous companies are known to have sold ordinary tap water in bottles bearing counterfeit labels-e.g., from Saratoga [Saratoga n.d.].) (See figure 3.)

Among other historic spa sites I have visited are Sharon Springs and Clifton Springs in New York, Cambridge Springs in Pennsylvania, and Lithia Springs in Georgia, among others-each worthy of an article by itself.


Seemingly supportive of the sweeping grandiose claims made for mineral springs is the fact that many visitors offered testimonials in their favor. However, according to psychologist Terence Hines (1988, 236-237), “One can find testimonials attesting to the effectiveness of almost anything,” such as those given for “snake oils” that allegedly cured even “consumption” (tuberculosis). Hines adds: “It is safe to say that if testimonials play a major part in the ‘come on’ for a cure or therapy it is almost certainly worthless. If the promoters of the therapy had actual evidence for its effectiveness, they would cite it and not have to rely on testimonials.”

Even some spa advocates who touted the beneficial effects of various inclusions in the water conceded they were not solely due to them. Benefits were also attributed to the water’s mechanical and thermal effects on the body-hot- and cold-water applications being commonly prescribed for various therapeutic purposes-not to mention, of course, psychosomatic benefits, the so-called placebo effect (Swanner 1988, 32-37; Kršling 2002).

Potential negative effects were rarely considered. For example, at Saratoga laws on radioactivity required the posting of signs warning that radium content might be harmful to health, while spa-advocate Swanner (1988, 37) found that “ridiculous,” saying, “If the mineral waters have deleterious physiologic effects, they have yet to be demonstrated.” This seems rather an attempt to shift the burden of proof and to suggest, counter intuitively, that a wide variety of positive effects could come from ingesting certain substances but never any negative effects.

Nonetheless, quite obviously the spas-offering a change of scenery, rest, the distraction from one’s ills provided by almost any physical treatment, and the power of positive thinking-represented a successful, if temporary, prescription for many ailments.


I am grateful to Timothy Binga, Director of CFI Libraries, for research assistance, and Andrew Skolnick, Executive Director of the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health, for peer review.


  1. According to Andrew Skolnick (see acknowledgments): “Levels of lithium that cause dangerous toxicity are rather close to therapeutic levels. This is especially so for people with severe cardiovascular or kidney disease. Therefore, it’s likely that any natural waters with high enough lithium levels to have any beneficial psychological effect would also cause substantial illness and death.”


Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at