A doctor's glad tidings had them all drinking seawater

A doctor from Lewes became a very wealthy man indeed after recommending that drinking seawater could cure a host of illnesses.

Dr. Russell popularised sea bathing and the curative powers of drinking seawater and in doing so hugely boosted Brightons resort status. This photograph shows the beach in Edwardian times with the Royal Albion Hotel visible beyond the Palace Pier.

Dr. Richard Russell also claimed that bathing in the sea was greatly beneficial to health.

Born in Lewes in 1687, he was the son of Nathaniel Russell, a prosperous surgeon, and was the eldest of seven children. Richard followed his father into medicine and in 1725 set up his own successful surgery in a large house in Lewes High Street, near the castle. The building still exists and is marked with a commemorative plaque. By coincidence it is almost opposite a house that would later become home to another distinguished Lewes doctor, Gideon Mantell, discoverer of the fossil remains of a dinosaur near Cuckfield in 1822.

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I like to think that Dr. Russell must have visited the little seaside town of Brighthelmstone and had a “ureka” moment in respect of medical miracles from simple seawater. Wherever his inspiration came from, Dr. Russell quickly found he was tapping into a powerful public thirst for natural remedies; the curative power of the sea perfectly fitted the narrative.

In 1750 he published a dissertation in Latin - “De Tabe Glandulari” - in which he recommended seawater for the treatment of glandular disorders. It was the first book to link drinking and bathing in seawater to benefits to health; a copy in English was produced in 1752 that became a bestseller.

The book buyers were invariably well-to-do folk happy to spend money promoting their wellbeing. Russell pulled no punches in his text, describing in gruesome detail various ailments. Treatments could be almost as revolting as the malady with blood-letting an accompaniment to bathing in the sea plus the likes of crabs’ eyes, cuttlefish bones, coral, sponges, woodlice, a measure of tar and other odd additives being mixed with the seawater before imbibing. Seaweed poultices were one of the least obnoxious “cures”.

The original version being in Latin doubtless added gravitas to what were merely Russell’s theories and he shamelessly name-dropped quotations from ancient physicians. Surprisingly, the seawater treatments met with some success, maybe due to the placebo effect. It was also a fact that nobody washed too often in those days and the seawater was pretty much pure and unpolluted. Fresh seaside air would have done no harm either.

Russell was accepted into the medical and scientific establishment so much so that in 1752 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. With his fortunes now so closely associated with the sea, he left Lewes and moved to Brighton in 1753 where he had a grand house built on the seafront in the place now occupied by the Royal Albion Hotel. The redbrick building was then Brighton's biggest house; it accommodated patients and Russell himself and had access directly to the beach.

It’s unsurprising that Dr Russell championed Brighton seawater as being far superior to that of non-saline water issuing from inland spas. However, he made one exception when he proclaimed that the mineral water from a chalybeate spring in St. Anne’s Well Gardens, Hove, was first class. I suspect he received a handsome fee for his ringing endorsement.

In case you are wondering, that name “chalybeate” comes from the Latin word for steel, “chalybs” and describes water with a high content of iron. Russell wasn’t the only advocate of St Anne’s Well. In 1761 Dr. Anthony Relhan produced a book with the somewhat unwieldy title, “A Short History of Brighthelmstone; with Remarks on its Air, an Analysis of its Waters, Particularly of an uncommon Mineral one”.

There was a drawback to Dr Russell’s bathing treatment. The weather. On stormy days it would be downright dangerous to risk immersion in the sea. The solution came in 1768 when Dr. John Awsiter set out his “Thoughts on Brighthelmstone concerning Sea bathing and drinking Seawater”. Awsiter proposed individual indoor seawater baths that afforded protection from the elements. For good measure he brewed his own “recipes” for seawater-based drinks, mixing milk and other additives to cure a range of afflictions including infertility. Within two years, his baths were open in Pool Valley.

Dr. Richard Russell had a literary side-career. “The Grub-Street Journal” was published from 1730 to 1738 and was a satire on popular journalism as conducted in London’s Grub Street. Russell was one of the editors. Think of a Georgian version of “Private Eye”.

Russell also wrote a second book on seawater cures in 1754 that was again well received. He died in London while visiting a friend and was buried in South Malling Church, Lewes, on Christmas Day, 1759, aged 72. A tablet to his memory reads (in Greek): “The sea washes away all the ills of mankind.” An advertising slogan from beyond the grave!

Many more people will have seen another Russell memorial on the Royal Albion Hotel that pays tribute to the doctor’s major role in promoting the resort of Brighton. It reads: “If you seek his monument look around”. Sounds familiar? That’s because it was “borrowed” from the epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren inside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Now there’s a strange coincidence that a man called Albion Russell lived in Lewes in Victorian times and worked close by Dr Russell’s former house. The two men were unrelated; Albion was a shoemaker originally from Chiddingly. His business in the county town thrived and he made shoes not just for local buyers but also for customers country-wide. He became the Russell of the shoe store chain Russell & Bromley.