During his journey to convey orders to the colonels of respective regiments from Lexington to Kanawha, William Alexander Graham kept a journal that included descriptions of Warm Springs, located in a valley “in the midst of a world of mountains. (1)” Its waters exhibited “a slightly sulphurous taste and smell,” and Graham inferred that it also contained limestone. It had a temperature of “about body heat,” quantified by several guests as about 96°F, and continually produced bubbles (1,2). Graham, as well as other doctors, also claimed that the spring displayed healing qualities, “especially in Rheumatick affections” and arthritis (1,3).
Due to this belief in its medicinal value, famous figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, have visited the springs. During his trip to Warm Springs in August 1818, Jefferson expected to alleviate his rheumatism (4). By this time, the owners had built an octagonal bathhouse and a three-story hotel, aptly named “The Colonnade” for its rows of columns, to ensure the comfort of their guests (2). Thus, it was no wonder that Jefferson considered this venue as being “of the first merit” compared to the other medicinal springs in Virginia (4). During his visit, Jefferson followed the standard protocol. He stayed in the water for about fifteen minutes, dressed in warm clothes, slept for half an hour, and then ate a huge meal (4,5). This sequence could be repeated two to three times a day. Since visitors usually stayed for a few days or even weeks, they could supplement their therapy with exercise by mountain climbing or horseback riding (4,5). Moreover, in addition to bathing in the water, visitors could also drink it; however, Jefferson did not partake in such activity(4). According to the letters he wrote to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson initially experienced positive effects from bathing in the water so he decided to prolong his stay from one week to three weeks. However, after the second week, his condition worsened; he began to develop swellings on his posterior that prevented him “from sitting but on the corner of a chair.” In December 1818, even after the passage of a few months, Jefferson still remembered his terrible experience and claimed to a friend that his “trial of the Warm Springs was certainly ill advised (4).”
However, many other guests still believed in the healing abilities of hot springs. There were several reasons why hot springs were perceived as a natural remedy for many illnesses. Doctors believed that the balance of fluids in the body determined a person’s overall health. Thus, bathing in or drinking from hot springs, could restore fluid balance.3 Moreover, the minerals in hot spring water cause it to become a laxative; thus, doctors believed drinking it expelled unnecessary fluids. Another reason why many thought that hot springs kept people healthy was because the isolated location prevented visitors from catching the epidemic diseases, such as yellow fever, that ravaged the coast in the summer. Finally, resorts that were built by the springs tend to offer an abundance of food; thus, visitors were well-fed and often became fat, which was considered a sign of good health. Such an increase in weight was deemed so noteworthy that public weigh-ins were done in front of some of the hotels (3).
In addition to their healing powers, hot springs were also famous for being the center of the social scene from June to September, especially during the mid-nineteenth century. By this time, the resorts had been constructed to mimic Grecian architecture, making them particularly attractive to elite members of society. So much so that the number of invalids who sought to be cured by the so-called healing waters only comprised a minority of the visitors. Moreover, resorts were often compared to a market place for love because the Southern gentry often flocked to the hot springs to meet potential spouses (3).
As the demand for mineral springs boomed, resort owners hired resident doctors who could advise guests about the appropriate regimen to treat their condition. Archibald Graham, William Alexander Graham’s brother, became such a doctor for the Rockbridge Alum Springs in the 1840s (6). He was the one who recommended the Rockbridge Alum Springs to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as a treatment for dyspepsia; Jackson was so pleased with the resort that it became his “favorite retreat.” (6) However, its medicinal prowess was nothing compared to that of White Sulphur Springs, the premier hot spring resort in the mid-nineteenth century. According to letters written by a Pennsylvanian traveler (5), “the water has the pleasant flavor of a half-boiled, half-spoiled egg, is very clear, and not cold enough to please the taste of a Philadelphia cockney.” Moreover, the water consisted of “sulphuretted hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen; sulphate, carbonate and muriate of lime, sulphate of magnesia.” The author of the letters also poked gentle fun at the belief that its waters could allegedly cure a wide range of conditions, including “scarlet fever, yellow fever, spotted fever, and fever of every kind and colour,” as well as “diarrhea, diabetes, and die-of-any-thing.” In addition, a variety of people also went to White Sulphur Springs simply “to see and be seen, to chat, laugh and dance, and to throw each his pebble on the great heap of the general enjoyment.” Thus, such fascination in leisure overtook the curative benefits of going to hot springs.
Despite the claims that hot springs served as a panacea, recent research has demonstrated it may actually have neutral or even negative effects. An epidemiological study conducted in 2009 demonstrated that pathogenic bacteria, such as those in the genus Legionella, that can live in extremely high temperatures are present in hot springs(7). Moreover, the strong movement of the water could cause “difficulty of breathing and oppression of the breast.(8)” Such a stressful effect on the body could have negative repercussions. Therefore, an excursion to hot springs nowadays is seen more as a leisure activity rather than as a medical treatment.
By: Monette Veral
William Alexander Graham, “A Narrative  of Graham’s Journeys, Medical Training and Career 1816-1819 in Lexington, Va., Abingdon, Va., and Philadelphia,” Washington and Lee University Library, Special Collections.
Jefferson, T. Notes on the State of Virginia; Lily and Wait: Boston, 1832.
Lewis, C. M. B. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs 1790-1860; University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, VA, 2011.
Claude Moor Health Sciences Library. Taking the Waters: 19th Century Medicinal Springs of Virginia. http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/exhibits/springs/warm.cfm#jefferson (accessed May 17, 2012).
Nicklin, P. H. Letters Descriptive of The Virginia Springs: The Roads Leading Thereto, and the Doings Thereat. H.S. Tanner: Philadelphia, 1835.
Holman, A. C. Thomas J. Jackson and the Idea of Health: A New Approach to the Social History of Medicine. Civil War History, 1992, 38, 131-155.
Furuhata, K.; Ogihara, K.; Okuno, R.; Oonaka, K.; Fukuyama, M. Growth in Acanthamoeba sp. and Antibiotic Susceptibility of Legionella micdadei Isolated from Hot Spring Water Samples. Bicontrol Science, 2009, 14, 181-184.
Physician of Philadelphia. Observations on the Mineral Waters in the South Western Part of Virginia: In a Series of Letters. J. Thompson, Carter’s Alley: Philadelphia, 1834.
Mineral springs: John Lewis Eubank, Warm Springs, Bath County, Virginia, Gary’s Steam Printing Establishment, 1875
White Sulfur Springs: Lithograph by Edward Beyer, 1875. Digital image at New York Public Library