Disciplining the ‘viperous brat’: the Scarborough Spa controversy and the fraught relationship between chemistry and medicine in seventeenth-century England

As far back as Roman Britain, England’s spa water had been regarded as possessing remarkable curative properties. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, prescribing visits to spas was seen as an integral weapon in the physician’s arsenal against disease (see e.g. John Jones’ The benefit of the auncient bathes of Buckstones (1572)). As the seventeenth century progressed, the topic of spas became a battleground on which partisans of a chemically-orientated form of ‘physic’ (i.e. medicine)—presented as more  adept at discovering the waters’ curative properties and interaction with the body through experimental analysis— fought against a Galenic theory that drew on classical medical authorities to explain spa waters’ powers in terms of their ability to cure imbalances of the humours.

In 1660, Robert Wittie, a physician in York, published  Scarbrough Spaw, OR, A DESCRIPTION OF THE Nature and Vertues OF THE Spaw at Scarbrough in Yorkshire. He explained in the work’s introduction that, ‘having had a large opportunity for twenty 2. years last past, to observe the effects of this medicinall spring not onely in my selfe, but very many others […] I shall for the further benefit of my Country make out my experience’ (8). He then discussed the minerals discoverable in the water through evaporation—vitriol, allom, nitre, and salt—before arguing that they combine with the water subterraneously. Explaining why Scarborough’s waters are so restorative, Wittie argued that its minerals correct the imbalance of the four qualities (cold, damp, heat, and dryness) and four humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile) that, for Galenists, constitute the central causes of illness (192, 195).

Unfortunately for Wittie, his work was seized upon by proponents of the  ‘new’ form of chemical medicine as an example of  Galenism’s errors.  In a 1668 issue of the Philosophical Transactions (Phil. Trans. 3 (42) (1668), 850–52) Oldenburg advertised the publication of Dr William Simpson’s Hydrologia Chymica, or, the chemical anatomy of the Scarbrough and other spaws in York-Shire (1668). Simpson, responding to the second edition of Wittie’s Scarbrough Spaw (1667), agreed that the spa water was medically beneficial, but reported that his experiments on the water found none of the minerals in the form that Wittie described. Influenced by Jan Baptist van Helmont, Simpson contended that the water’s positive effects should be ascribed to a particular kind of “menstrual salt” mingling with minerals and bringing balance to our digestive fermentations (59). Simpson also savagely attacked Wittie’s method, decrying his lack of detailed experiments (12) and his adherence to the Galenic idea of the four qualities (23). He wrote in gleeful anticipation of the day when the ‘Chymical Practice of Physick’ would finally out ‘worm out the Galenical Method’ (‘To the reader’) .

There was, however, more common ground between the two men than we might expect from Simpson’s anti-Galenic diatribe. Indeed, Simpson’s critique of Wittie’s lack of experiment was somewhat unfair.  In Scarbrough Spaw, Wittie had been very clear about his desire to combine ‘reason and experience’—theory and experiment—in his medicine (9, 10). In his frustrated reply to Simpson, Pyrologia Mimica, OR, AN ANSWER TO HYDROLOGIA CHYMICA (1669), he retorted that he possessed a ‘laboratory of my own’ in which to make ‘several Experiments out of the Minerals of this Spaw’ (‘To the Judicious and Impartial READER’). What was at issue was whether chemical medicine had any need of Galenic theory or its conventional cures to be explicable or effective. Wittie went on in Pyrologia Mimica to complain that Simpson risked making chemistry a ‘viperous brat’ by decoupling it from Galenism, and castigated the arrogance of some chemically-inclined physicians (‘To the Judicious and Impartial READER’). He complained that Simpson had interfered with his effective purging and bloodletting of a Major in Yorkshire, proposing to cure him simply through the artificial ‘Cure’ of a ‘rare chymist’ which was unnecessary and unwanted  (151). Ultimately, both physicians agreed that experiment was vital to the improvement of medical practice. What was controversial was the relationship between the evidence gathered from experiment and the evidence gathered from physicians and their patients: why, Wittie asked, were the testimonies of chemists in laboratories, and their confidence in the chemical cures they produced, necessarily superior to the mass of patient testimony, and Wittie’s own years of practice, that showed the effectiveness of the Galenic method?

Interestingly, when Henry Oldenburg  reported on this controversy in the Philosophical Transactions, he saw the two physicians as being largely in agreement.  The ‘judicious reader of both these Authors’, Oldenburg wrote, will find that the ‘ difference between them […] in that which respects the two ways of practising Physick, the Galenical and Chymical, is indeed not so great, as the heat of Contention seems to make it’ (Phil. Trans. 4 (49) (1669), 999). He went on to urge both ‘Professors of Art’ to lay aside ‘personal animosities’ (ibid). If they both agreed  (as they appeared to) that ‘new and great discoveries may be made by careful Observations and Experiments’, they could unite ‘the two so much celebrated methods of administring Physick [Galenic and chemical], for curing […] Diseases’ (Phil. Trans. 4 (49) (1669), 1000). This, Oldenburg stressed, ‘is the true way to do service indeed to Mankind, and to entertain and raise the Credit of that Profession’ (ibid). For Oldenburg, such abstract squabbles were unhelpful and unnecessary distractions, preventing a collaborative effort to improve medicine that could greatly benefit the general public.

The Scarborough spa controversy is a nice illustration of how an abstract disagreement about the proper relationship between two different forms of evidence—experimental conclusions and everyday testimony—played out practically in a local medical dispute. Oldenburg’s dismissive reaction to Wittie and Simpson’s methodological disagreement also indicates that,  in socially vital disciplines like medicine, seventeenth-century methodological controversies, in addition to improving disciplinary practices, were sometimes seen as distracting from what really mattered: collaborating for the public good.




Eighteenth-century depiction of Scarborough, Yorkshire with spas depicted in left foreground (taken from Thomas Gent, History of Hull (Annales Regioduni Hullini) (Hull: M.C. Peck and Son, 1865 [reprint of 1735 original])

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Niall Dilucia (April 2, 2024). Disciplining the ‘viperous brat’: the Scarborough Spa controversy and the fraught relationship between chemistry and medicine in seventeenth-century England. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from https://notcom.hypotheses.org/3300

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