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Introduction to Balneology

Balneology is the study of the art and science of baths and bathing in natural mineral waters for health and wellness purposes.

Balneology includes scientific research into the methods and applications of bathing, drinking, steaming and inhaling natural thermal and mineral waters for wellness, health and medical benefits, including their associated natural gases and peloids (organic muds). As a wide and interdisciplinary field, it encompasses not only site-specific analyses and clarifications of natural mineral water sources, but also their local and regional geography and geology, mineralogy and chemistry, bio-molecular nature and structural forms, and climates and seasons.

Natural mineral waters have always provided benefits to living creatures on earth.

Developed over the centuries, balneology has origins in ancient Egypt, Greece, Roman, Germany, France, Russia, Arabia, China, Japan, as well as numerous indigenous cultures around the world. Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine,” was the first to reference healing with water in 500 B.C. and the Romans were famous for building bathhouses and bringing thousands of its citizens to the waters for exercise, theatre, study, and socializing in addition to bathing.

At the time of the founding of the United States of America in 1776, President George Washington established the public mineral water spa at Berkeley Springs, in what is now Bath County, West Virginia. Originally named “Medicine Waters” on a map drawn by Thomas Jefferson’ father, Washington recognized the curative and healing powers of the waters and visited frequently with his family.

Over half a century later in 1832 during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the first national public land grant was set aside at “Hot Springs” in what is now Arkansas.  This was the first congressional act of conserving and recognizing the value and benefits of the natural mineral waters. Four decades later in 1872, the National Park System was formed and “Yellowstone” was established as the first park set aside for preservation due to both the extraordinary geothermal waters and their natural environment. During the decades following the Civil War up through the beginning of World War II in 1941, hundreds of thousands of American’s regularly visited and utilized natural mineral waters sources across the continent for their wellness, health care, therapy and rehabilitation.

At the beginning of the 20th, through the Roaring 20’s and into the Great Depression, Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York became one of the largest and most popular wellness resorts and health spas. With funding from the New Deal, Saratoga Springs developed into a world class destination resort spa and research facility. During the same time and on the other coast, California attracted many visitors and patients seeking solutions to their health and medical problems because of its numerous active geothermal mineral water sources and pleasant climate.

After World War II and during the following four decades (1950s – 1980s) numerous public health and social issues like polio, segregation, and scientific advances in pharmacology influenced mass media and public perception, which led to the abandonment of natural mineral waters for health and healing.  Formal medical attention and training turned elsewhere during the atomic and electronic information ages.

Taking the Waters

A Historical Look at Water Therapy and Spa Culture Over the Ages

By Dr. Jonathan Paul de Vierville

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2000.

Taking the Waters. It’s a phrase that holds mysterious connotations from a simpler, ancient time. Just as with water therapies today, Taking the Waters was, and is, a physical venture into healing, cleansing and rejuvenation. What has been significantly lost from the Taking the Waters experience of old is the integration of domains. Art, socialization, nutrition, honest leisure, discussion, music — these interdisciplinary elements were all part of the spa culture of which Taking the Waters has historically been a part.

Where once spa-goers Took the Waters in natural springs or temple baths, today’s spa client is often found Taking the Waters in a hydrotherapy tub or mineral bath. And while the physical benefits remain, there is something of the original concept missing in the singularity of the experience and the forgotten notion of spa culture. Still, some of the greatest spas in the world — Karlsbad being one of them — hold fast to the notion of integration of experience.

There is the direct application of the waters (drinking, bathing, treatments), but also the indirect environment (the social side, the theater, art galleries, down time, leisure). It is an experience where body and mind have time to rest. The integration is complete, with experiences being repeated throughout the process — this is what the Kur concept is about.

Many water sources are rich in minerals, and through hydration, can be absorbed into the body by both drinking or bathing. Each cell in our body forms and maintains an extensive network of essential minerals. The human body requires minerals to regulate the metabolism, hormones, enzymes and general health. Human skin, the largest organ of the body, absorbs only the amount of needed minerals, which is a much more effective system than taking mineral supplements through the digestive system. 

Every water source has its’ own mineral water signature. The composition of minerals offer therapeutic benefits by the water structure maintaining electrolyte balance for hydration. Some common minerals are Silica for moist skin, Magnesium for muscle function, Sulphates enhance metabolism, Potassium and Magnesium for health heart,  Iron to reduce stress.

Read more here.

In other cultures around the world, Balneology is recognized as a complementary and integrative health care method that supports wellness, self-care and healing practices, which are much less extreme and more restorative and regenerative. Less use of pharmaceuticals leads to a reduction in the flow of strong drugs into our water supply and helps minimize negative bio-chemical environmental impacts on the waters of earth. Recent extensive studies have shown the harmful impacts of excessive amounts of pharmaceutical drugs appearing in our water supplies and oceans that is leading to unforeseeable changes and possible biological mutations in all living species.

Professional Organizations


Books

North America

  • “American Healing Waters:  A Chronology ( 1513-1946) and Historical Survey of America’s Major Springs, Spas & and Health Resorts”  by Dr. J.Paul De Vierville, 1992
  • “Beautiful Spas & Hot Springs of California” by Stanley Young, 1998
  • “Crazy Water: The Story of Mineral Wells & Other Texas Health Resorts”, by Gene Fowler, 1991
  • Healing Springs: the Ultimate Guide to Taking the Waters, by Nathaniel Altman, 2000
  • “Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs & Spas” by Loring Bullard, 2004
  • “Healing With Water”, by Jeanne Keller, 1968
  • “History of American Spas & Hydrology” in S. Licht, ed. Medical Hydrology, 1963
  • “The History of the Greenbrier : Americas Resort” by Robert S. Conte, 1989.
  • “Historic Springs of the Virginas: A Pictorial History,” by Stan Cohen, 1994
  • “Hot Springs of Western Canada” by Glenn Woodsworth (including some in WA and AK), Gordon Soules Book Publishers, Vancourver, Canada, Seattle, WA, 1997
  • Medical History of Waters & Spas, by Roy Porter, ed. 1990
  • “Saratoga: Queen of Spas” by Grace Swanner, 1998
  • “Taking the Waters in Texas: Springs, Spas & Fountains of Youth” by Janet Mace Valenza, 2000
  • “The Best Spas” by Theodore B. Van Itallie and Leila Hadley, Harper and Row Publishers, 1988.
  • “The Ultimate Spa Book” by Pam Martin Sarnoff”, Warner Books, NY, 1989.

International

  • “A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs” by Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro, Kodansha International, Tokyo, NY, London
  • “My Water-Cure” by Sebastian Kneipp, Jos. Koesel, Publisher, Kempten, Bavaria, 1886
  • “Stories From A Heated Earth: Our Geothermal Heritage” by Raffaele Calaldi, Susan F. Hodgson, John W. Lund, 1999
  • “Taking the Waters : Early Spas in New Zealand” by Ian Rockel, Government Printing Office, Wellington, NZ, 1986
  • “16th Century Balneotherapy Manuscript”, Venice, heirs of Lucantonio Giunta, 1553

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