Turkish baths in asylums

Cork District Lunatic Asylum

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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Dr Power's proposal, with Dr Barter's support

The close proximity of the Cork District Lunatic Asylum to St Ann’s Hydro was a major factor influencing the building there of the first Turkish bath designed for asylum patients.

Dr Thomas Power, the resident physician, had been impressed by the therapeutic results achieved by the use of the bath at St Ann’s and had been in contact with its owner Dr Richard Barter.

In 1860, with Barter’s help, Power persuaded the asylum’s board of governors, ‘after much discussion and opposition’, to install a Turkish bath there—a decision which was then, necessarily, sanctioned by the Privy Council.

The bath, constructed under Dr Barter’s supervision, would have been very simple. We know that in 1889 it had two hot rooms, one for men and the other for women, but it seems likely that initially there was only a single room, with separate times allocated for each sex.

Though not completed until February 1861, the bath was already in use the previous December. After being prepared for two or three days beforehand under the supervision of Dr Barter and Inspector-General Hatchell of the Dublin Office of Lunatic Asylums, sixteen patients volunteered to use the bath. All enjoyed it and wanted to use it again.

The bath in use

At the beginning of May, Dr Power reported to the governors that since January, 124 patients had used the bath. Ten of these had been discharged cured and another 52 had ‘improved or were improving’.

Of course this was no controlled scientific experiment, as both The Lancet and the British Medical Journal were quick to point out. The former noted that Power’s experience would ‘need to be corrected and tested by that of other physicians’; that it wasn’t clear if other treatments had also been used; and that such a discharge rate was not all that unusual in a well-conducted asylum without a Turkish bath.

While the British Medical Journal contented itself with the snide remark that ‘If this Turkish bath goes on spreading throughout the country, it is quite clear that the practice of physic will soon come to an end!’

But Power was not writing a scientific paper, merely reporting progress to his governors and, buoyed up by these initial results, he made a plea for the introduction of Turkish baths in all the asylums, workhouses and prisons in the kingdom.

In his second report, Power wrote that while patients were, at first, limited to one bath per week, this had now been increased, and that between fifty and eighty patients a day were now using the bath. While some used it for remedial purposes, a larger number used it for personal cleansing, although this too had resulted in much healthier patients.

The results were still informally presented, but this time he was rather more careful with his figures for the numbers of cured and improved patients. Instead, he emphasised that because the percentage of cures obtained was higher than it had previously been, the Turkish bath must have played at least some part in the improvement; that the patients themselves believed that it helped them; and that relapsed patients returning to the asylum asked to be taken to the bath at once ‘as they considered that nothing else would cure them.’

The Lancet commented more supportively this time, suggesting that Power’s experience ‘may well be recommended to the consideration of the managers of other public and private asylums.’

The introduction of the Turkish bath into an asylum was not only of interest to the medical profession, or even to readers of the British press, but as far away as Australasia.

A month after Power’s report was covered in the Australian papers, it was raised in Parliament when Mr Sadleir asked if the Government intended to introduce the Turkish bath into Australian asylums. Mr Cowper, the Colonial Secretary, replied that he would refer the suggestion to the medical superintendent and that he, personally, thought it might be established with advantage in other establishments also, in the Parliament, for example—a suggestion evidently greeted with much laughter.

The baths were still in use in the early 1890s.


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