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  • Diane Janowski

Gleason’s Water Cure

Updated: 6 days ago

by ©Diane Janowski, Elmira City Historian, all rights reserved


Modern hydropathy – a system of treating illnesses using water was developed in Austria in the 1820s. By the 1840s, there were several “water cure” health resorts in Europe. Treatments included cold-water therapy, walking, and eating simple peasant food. Doctors wrapped cold, wet sheets around wealthy European patients for several hours to cure them of their ailments.


Drs. Silas and Rachel Gleason opened Gleason’s Water Cure on East Hill on June 1, 1852. The main building was four stories with two wings, and a smaller building was two stories. The facility accommodated 100 patients at a time. The 1863 city directory states, “The beautiful natural surroundings made it a desirable location for the invalid.”  Their advertisement also mentioned that patients would bring their own towels (at least six would be needed).


Albumin stereoview of Gleasons’ Water Cure by Charles Tomlinson circa 1880. Photo courtesy of Diane Janowski.

The natural sulfur spring resort brought a new theory of healthcare to the United States. The strong-smelling water was pumped into the buildings with wooden pipes. The Gleasons practiced hydropathic medicine, using water as a cure and a preventative. The facility not only used water as a therapeutic agent but also promoted temperance and women’s rights. Silas Gleason studied traditional medicine at Castleton Medical College and graduated in 1844. Rachel Gleason was among the first women to receive a medical diploma in the United States.


Hydrotherapy was “gentle” as opposed to the more invasive medical treatments of the time. The Gleasons prescribed hot and cold water baths, water sprays, and electrical immersion in water to their patients. Hygiene, good eating, exercise, abstention from coffee, alcohol, and smoking rounded out the Gleason treatment. In addition, an “aggressive course of water drinking” was expected.


Gleasons’ patients wore “Bloomer costumes” – gowns with wide sleeves and puffy loose-fitting pants. Rachel Gleason believed that tight women’s clothing caused most health problems. Women patients usually cut their hair short to dry quicker from the frequent baths. In her “Letters to The People on Health and Happiness,” Rachel described her treatment as a “simple diet, pure air, hard beds, proper positions by night and day, and regular, systematic training to invigorate the whole of the muscular system by appropriate exercise combined with the medical use of water as a tonic to the whole nervous and muscular system. In most cases, this would restore ‘perfect health.’ ”


The Gleasons could also spend more time with their patients as they were with them all day. The Gleasons believed that women physicians bonded better with women patients and that women patients recuperated better in a female environment.

Rachel’s specialty was women's diseases. She was Olivia Langdon Clemens’s physician and delivered all four Clemens children. Among Mrs. Gleason’s patients were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Emily Dickinson’s mother. All came to Elmira for treatments. Elmira was world-famous and highly acclaimed for its hospital.


The Water Cure was also moderately expensive, making it appealing to higher-class families. In the 1860s, the Gleasons charged $7–10 a week for live-in treatments. They remained there until 1868 when Silas’s health forced them to move to Florida.


After the Gleasons retired, other doctors followed in succession, including Dr. Theron Augustus Wales and his wife Zippie Wales from 1873-1897, Dr. Edith Wheeler, Dr. Clarabelle Hutchinson, Dr. Fannie Brown, and finally, in 1927, Drs. John and Gertrude Doyle. The attending staff and clientele were predominantly female.

The Water Cure lasted until 1902, although the building was a rest home until 1959.


The “Cures” at Elmira and nearby Dansville, New York, were headed by strong staff and succeeded for many decades, unlike four other cures in Massachusetts that failed.




Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women's Health. Susan Cayleff page 92.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain, edited by J.R. LeMaster, James D. Wilson page 322. Twain and Medicine: Any Mummery Will Cure. K. Patrick Ober. Communication from Mrs. Dr. R. B. Gleason, in Catharine E. Beecher, Letters to The People on Health and Happiness(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856), pp. 1*-16*



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