Illustrations of the Water CureProvincial Medical and Surgical Journal 1843; s1-5 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.s1-5.121.328 (Published 21 January 1843) Cite this as: Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 1843;s1-5:328
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Orientated beside the city of Worcester in the West of England, a ridge of nine miles forms the great green hills known as the Malverns. From a belt of speed, Motorway Five, the Malverns are a mysterious mass, a stegosaurus resting on the Worcestershire plains before continuing onwards to Shropshire. Such a vision tallies with the prehistoric origin of these conjoined, lightly-grassed hills. Geologically, the range of the Malverns has existed as a particle since the Precambrian Age and primeval peoples knew their little-wandering outline. Scotland and Wales are lands of hill and mountain whereas England is of smoother terrain, so that the Malverns are foremost in the examples of hill country in the southerly stretches of the British Isles.
Intrigued by the Malverns was the iconic Oxford professor, J R R Tolkien, whose roaming on these hills presented him with the landscape he needed to formulate his Other Worlds. Standing on a pinnacle of the Malverns, one can see how the largesse of panorama, crisscrossed by hedgerows, would have spurred the Oxford don to imagine a Hobbit in a fantastical land called Middle-Earth. But before Tolkien came for an interlude of holiday, another gigantic academic had preceded him a hundred years earlier. In 1849, Charles Darwin stagecoached over two days from his abode, Down House in Kent, to reach the spa town of Great Malvern which lies threaded along the high hills of Worcestershire.
Darwin was ill. His aim was to assuage another bout of sickness marked by nausea and stomach aches. Throughout his life, Darwin endured relapses of this sickness, later considered to be a pernicious relic from the tropical years spent aboard the HMS Beagle. Listless and bedridden, the naturalist came to learn of a new system for wellbeing known as the water-cure of Worcestershire. The leading exponent of the cure was a Dr James Gully, who had transformed the soporific village of Great Malvern into a bristling Victorian resort which drew the benefaction of health-seekers from across the country. But before the impetus of the 1800s in Britain, spa waters had been venerated since the 1600s, and even earlier the medievals had believed in their reparative properties.
In the branchings of Victorian medicine, the system of hydrotherapy came to be rapidly popularised. Malvern water was advertised for treating upsets of the liver, formations of kidney stone, as well as foibles and fatigues of the eye. Dr James Gully prescribed a regime for Charles Darwin which consisted of being toga-rolled in linen, followed by a soaking in large measures of spa water. Pails of water were collected from springs which provide a daily harvest of dozens of mineralised pints. Sprinkled with rabbits in the summer, the hills are made of granite and limestone, rocks which leach into rainwater to create the prized elixir of Worcestershire.
Intrinsic to the water-cure was a reduction of the diet to blandnesses of mutton and fish, as well as a fastidious exclusion of alcoholic treats. Sufficiencies of sleep and exercise were combined with a generous partaking of the spa waters. Rejuvenated by the abstemious lifestyle, Charles Darwin returned to his residence in fine fettle. By yielding wholly to the water-cure, no progress had been made by the scholar for a hiatus of several months. By the time the stagecoach rolled into Kentish lanes he was ready to assail the papers left abandoned in his study. However, the cure was short-lived, for Darwin would again become bedbound with paroxysms by the autumn, and over the next two years made further transitory visits to the Water-Cure Establishment by the hills.
Such was his faith in water-cure that when his daughter, the ten-year-old Annie, became afflicted by stomach pain Darwin again travelled up from Kent to consult his physician in Worcestershire. A villa was rented on the Worcester Road, and Annie seemed to recover over her first few days in the West Country. Darwin felt sufficiently heartened to leave for Kent and look after Emma, his wife who at the time has expecting another child. No sooner had Darwin reached Down House that he learnt of his daughter’s health faltering once again. By the time Darwin returned to Worcestershire his child had become extremely unwell. Over the ensuing days, the strength was sapped from her sinews and her vivacious spirit was broken. It was the April of 1852. Correspondence from the time records how a fibrillation of thunder moved along the Malverns, and on a rise of the storm, Annie, the eldest girl of Charles Darwin, took her last expirations inside a darkened house by the hills. Urged by those around him, Darwin left for Kent since his wife was by now in the preambles of childbirth. In the absence of her father, the ten-year-old Anne Elizabeth was buried in the churchyard of the Malvern Priory. Her grave with its plain headstone lies under the tresses of a Cedar of Lebanon.
Twelve years would pass before Darwin would return to Worcestershire to come and visit the grave of his daughter. He recollected the times when Annie would twirl in the manner of a ballerina before him, as father and daughter went for a jaunt along the circuit of the sandwalk he had built near Down House. Annie would make to tidy her father’s hair and straighten his crumpled coat, as they strolled along under the trees. When Darwin died in 1882, a small box was discovered which contained remembrances from his life. One of the items was a photograph of Annie on which he had inscribed, “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cried over this”. A spa town called Great Malvern, beside the high hills of Worcestershire, is the final resting place of Annie, Charles Darwin’s little daughter. It is the place where one of the greatest figures of science lost his religious faith. It is the place where he confirmed his belief that there must be another way of looking at the world.
Competing interests: No competing interests