I’m always intrigued when Austen characters, feeling ill and out of sorts, take a trip to the ocean to solve their health problems. Why did Regency doctors prescribe the sea cure, and is there anything to it? (And how do I get my doctor to write me a prescription for a beach vacation?) I decided to investigate.
Austen’s Characters and the Sea Cure
Tom Parker in Sanditon is Austen’s biggest proponent of the sea cure. He’s so dedicated to the idea that he opens a resort town to bring more people to the coast. Austen writes that Parker “held it indeed as certain that no person could be really in a state of secure & permanent Health without spending at least 6 weeks by the Sea every year,” adding that sea air and bathing can cure “every Disorder of the Stomach, the Lungs, or the blood.”
That’s a confident recommendation! But before you pack your bathing suit, you should talk to Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse, who gives us this opinion: “The sea is very rarely of use to any body. I am sure it almost killed me once.”
So who’s right? Let’s talk to the doctors of Jane’s day.
Physicians of Austen’s Time
Historically, the sea was a terrifying place. The bible describes massive floods, as well as monsters dwelling in its depths. Ships went out and never returned. Pirates attacked. Mostly, people wanted to stay out of the sea.
Fast forward to the late 1700’s, and England had a lot of illnesses and not a lot of cures. British physicians, searching for solutions, began to tout the healing benefits of bathing in cold sea water and breathing in the bracing sea air. Ocean water was believed to shrink tumors, relieve melancholy, cure tuberculosis, and heal various lung diseases. But don’t wait until summer—physicians claimed winter was the best time for an ocean bath, and the colder the water, the greater the benefits.
Society women flocked to the sea for Regency-style spa treatments. One popular treatment was to dunk women, fully clothed, into the ocean. This was repeated until the women were freezing and suffocating—which was also known as energized and revitalized. The women were then given dry clothes, back rubs, feet warmers, and a cup of tea. This is slightly different from today’s spa treatments, which substitute pedicures for hypothermia. Men did it too, but they were usually naked.
Drinking sea water was also thought to be a restorative cure for all sorts of diseases. Doctors recommended patients mix it with milk and honey, primarily because drinking straight ocean water is gross. In a 1750 article published in The Atlantic, Dr. Richard Russell described a patient with a “most troublesome case” of leprosy. After drinking sea water every day for nine months, the leprous spots covering his head and body disappeared. My dog also enjoys drinking sea water. It makes him gag, and I always thought he was kind of dumb for tugging on the leash to go back to drink more, but that dog has never had a leprous spot on his body, so maybe he and Dr. Russell are onto something.
Modern Medical Thoughts on Sea Air
Have I convinced you to book a ticket to the coast yet? No? Well, believe it or not, I did find evidence in support of the sea cure.
The sea is good for your skin and lungs. According to a 1999 study from the University of Freiburg in Germany, sea water helps alleviate skin problems such as dermatitis and psoriasis. This is because it is rich in minerals, including magnesium, chloride, sodium, potassium, iodine, and sulfur. The sea’s minerals also promote respiratory health, reducing allergies, sinus infections, and asthma symptoms. So it IS good to bathe in the sea and breathe in that ocean air! But I couldn’t find any studies proving my dog was right about drinking it.
Coastal living has mental health benefits as well. A 2019 study in the journal Health and Place found that people who live closer to the ocean have less mental stress. The study, which surveyed over 26,000 people, concluded that those who live less than 1 km from the coast are 22% less likely to suffer from mental health issues than those who live 50 km from the coast.
So the Regency doctors were right. We should all spend our days sunning on the beach! What other forgotten gems do those Regency physicians have for us? Stay tuned for next month’s post—Leeches: Were They Really That Bad?
Assuming we can’t all afford six weeks by the sea like Tom Parker advises, what do you do to relax and stay healthy? I like yoga, running, reading, and hanging out with my family and my sea water gulping pooch.
Here are a few references I used: