A Woman Champion: Mary Sargeant Gove Nichols, Hydrotherapist

 In Clinical Pearls, Geriatrics, Nature Cure

Nature Cure Clinical Pearls

Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE

I felt then that I would lay myself on the altar, and be burned with fire, if woman could be saved from the darkness of ignorance, and the untold horrors of her diseases. – Mary Nichols, 1851, p.29


The effects of water cure in acute disease have only to be seen to inspire the fullest confidence; for so rapidly are fevers and all acute maladies subdued by judicious water treatment, that the remedial effects thus obtained seem absolutely miraculous. – Mary Nichols, 1851, p.33


The chief conditions of cure in chronic disease are, first, that the physician should know how to adapt his treatment to the state of the patient; secondly, that there be pure water, pure air, proper diet, and exercise, and all those means that are really as much a part of water cure as water itself. – Mary Nichols, 1851, p.44


Mary S. Gove Nichols (1830-1884) was a remarkable writer and social reform activist in mid-19th-century America. She was a prolific reader and writer, leaving behind not only clinical pearls in “water cure and sanitary education,” but also in the “evils of tight lacing.” A disciple of Priessnitz, Nichols’ points of focus were homeopathy, vegetable drugs [Thomsonian herbalism] and, most particularly, the pure cold water therapies of the hydropaths. She also wrote novels, created curriculum and full programs related to healthy living and social reform, lectured on women’s health, and wrote commentaries on the injustices experienced by women in marriage conventions at the time. “Memnonia Institute,” which was opened in July 1856 by Mary and her second husband, Thomas Nichols, embodied many ideas set out in an earlier and controversial book, Esoteric Anthropology, published in 1853 and which redefined the basis of “true-love relationships.”

Her medical writing was substantial and sustained, and she also authored several novels, such as Agnes Morris, Mary Lyndon, and Uncle John. Largely self-taught, she was privately prodigious in study across a multitude of basic medical sciences and disciplines including physiology, chemistry, anatomy, pathology, and general theory and practice in medicine and surgery. She became a much sought-after lecturer on women’s health issues. She and Thomas Nichols established what has been touted as “the first medical school in the world on water cure principles.” (Blake, 1962, p.228)

She mastered the art of healing and medicine at a time when women were routinely barred from medical education. She was among the first American women to practice medicine as a profession, albeit without a license (which was not required at the time) or a medical degree (which no school would have permitted her to obtain). (Blake, 1962, p.234) She practiced hydrotherapy in an era when women would rather persevere with their afflictions than to submit themselves to a medical examination by male doctors. Nichols was troubled by the medical treatments wielded upon women. From her experiences and successes, she contributed several chapters to Water-Cure Library, Volume II about her experiences using water cure in the treatment of acute and chronic diseases, including gynecological conditions.

In her Preface, Nichols humbly acknowledges that there were already available many valuable books on the subject of water cure and that her little book was an attempt to fill a gap related to the diseases of women. She writes, “I by no means expect this little work to take the place of the valuable Water Cure books now in the market; but it contains more particular directions to women, and treats more of their peculiar diseases, than any work I have seen. My mission is to instruct and help women.” (Nichols, 1851, p.5) Women in the 19th century were too often harmed by medical procedures that caused unnecessary suffering, a result not only of poor medical practice but frequently also of women’s own lack of understanding and access to knowledge to improve their health. She understood this and did something to elevate women’s comprehension of their own bodies.

She defined “water cure” as “the scientific application of the principles of nature in the cure of disease.” (Nichols, 1851, p.8) Delving into her writing, we get a glimpse of the similarities between the not yet established Naturopaths of 1900 and the Hydropaths of 1850. She continues, “[Water cure] prescribes a pure and healthy diet, carefully adapted to the assimilating powers of the patient; it demands pure air and strengthening exercise, with other physical and moral hygienic conditions.” (Nichols, 1851, p.8) Fifty years later, Benedict Lust would similarly emphasize the importance of nature for healing: “Each diseased organism can heal only if placed under the same conditions under which all organic life grows and develops; these are, according to their natural order in efficacy: sunlight and heat, fresh air and cold water as a drink, a harmony of movement and rest, and fruit for food.” (Lust, 1902, p.72)

Tragedy & Determination

Not well known in the naturopathic community but highly regarded in historical feminist literature, Mary S. Gove Nichols is prominent and important. Her destiny as a teacher, healer, and reformer for women’s rights was a natural trajectory from an unhappy childhood and miserable marriage. “Mary’s father was a strong partisan Democrat, who liked a good argument, and a free thinker who read such scandalous [books] as Voltaire and Thomas Paine. He first sent Mary to school at the age of two … and at the age of five she went to the head of the class in spelling and by the age of six, she had read Plutarch.” (Blake, 1962, p.119) Mary Nichols grew up to be a voracious reader, devouring every book that she could find. Secretly, she would read her brother’s medical textbooks. “By 17, she was writing for magazines and newspapers and also began teaching.” (Blake, 1962, p.119)

She married Hiram Gove in 1831, and life was hard. The birth of her first baby, a daughter, was followed by 4 miscarriages or stillbirths. Her husband failed at business and at earning a livelihood, and eventually “lived off his wife’s desperate needlework, [forbidding] her to spend a cent without his niggardly permission. When she became too fond of letters from a brother she adored, Gove burned them. Ignorant, tyrannical, jealous, and mean, Gove quickly taught Mary that marriage without love made each hour an eternity of misery.” (Blake, 1962, p.220)

Her tragic marriage and her health compromised, Mary turned once again to reading medical books. Her readings introduced her to the work of Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham cracker, and a diet-reformist advocating vegetarianism.

Nichols as Teacher

She had a voracious appetite and a passion for anatomical, physiological, and pathological study, which she began as a child. Later, other physicians would lend her books on all medical subjects. Every spare moment was spent furthering her understanding of the human body. When she discovered water cure, she found her calling. She writes, “I first received benefit from the practice of water-cure in my own case, and then I sought to benefit others.” (Nichols, 1851, p.19)

In 1837, she began a school teaching young women about anatomy and physiology. “Blaming ignorance of most of women’s ills, Mrs. Gove conceived her mission in life to be teaching women the rules of health in order to relieve them of a crushing burden of physical and mental suffering.” (Blake, 1962, p.232) In the following year, 1838, she was invited by a society of women in Boston to give a course of lectures on anatomy and physiology, and was soon in demand in numerous States to bring these courses to other women’s groups. “Her audience averaged four to five hundred at each lecture … and when Mrs. Gove repeated her lecture on tight lacing [and the corset], the crowd numbered no less than two thousand.” (Blake, 1962, p.221) Mary’s scheming husband would sit at the entrance pocketing the admission fee for his wife’s talks. Empowering women to be in control of their own bodies, Nichols, a timid woman, became a national leader in both health reform and the water cure movement.

Nichols as Practitioner

In 1841, after 10 years of sexual and emotional abuse, her father threatened to sue Gove for money lent him, and Mary’s marriage to Gove ended in divorce. She moved in with her parents, and in due course encountered Henry Gardner Wright, who was visiting from England. He was sick and had books on Water Cure practices of Vincent Priessnitz that consolidated her own convictions on the subject of water cure. Reading these books clarified for her “what qualifications were requisite to make a successful practitioner of water cure.” (Nichols, 1851, p.30) Successful outcomes in water cure depended upon knowing the diagnosis of the disease and on having the skill to adapt the treatment to the strength and peculiar idiosyncrasy of the patient. (Nichols, 1851, p.30)

In 1844, to further her education, she spent 3 months studying at Dr Wesselhoeft’s Water Cure House in Brattleboro, Vermont. While there, she continued giving lectures to women patients. She then went to Lebanon Springs in New York, where she stayed at the Water Cure House for 3 months as the resident hydrotherapist. In the fall of 1844, she returned to New York City and stayed for several weeks, studying the practice of Dr Joel Shew before she opened her own clinic.

After leaving Dr Shew’s clinic, she began again her lectures to young women and opened a practice that eventually consolidated into a permanent site at 261 10th St, in New York City. Her tenure here was exceptionally busy, as she was sought out by patients from several States. The list of diseases that she had complete success in treating is astonishing, considering that we find the 10 leading causes of death at the time on her list of cases with successful outcomes. This list of acute diseases in Nichols’ era differs dramatically from the taxonomy of chronic diseases that currently presents in America: “Brain fever [meningitis], typhus, consumption, ship fever*, delirium tremens, smallpox, scarlatina, measles, chicken pox, varioloid, inflammatory rheumatism, spinal disease, and the whole train of women weaknesses, and uterine disease,  …  hernias, … fever, malaria, croup, influenza, diseases of the eyes, jaundice, dysentery, and cholera.” (Nichols, 1851, p.31)

In 1850, the leading causes of death were tuberculosis, dysentery, cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, scarlet fever, meningitis, and whooping cough. All of these diseases were treated by Nichols, with rare fatalities. Of the hundreds of severely ill patients that Nichols saw in her practice, she had on record only 2 deaths (dysentery, and brain disease with dysentery) – of 2 children born of unhealthy mothers.

Her Clinic & School

In 1848, she married Thomas Low Nichols, “a medical graduate of the University of New York” with a solid foundation in water-cure therapies. (Nichols, 1851, p.6) Together, in 1851 they established Water Cure House (located at 87 West 22nd Street, in New York City) which provided health care. They also founded the country’s first hydropathic medical school – The American Hydropathic Institute. This school offered women an opportunity to pursue medical training despite being routinely blocked from conventional medical colleges.

There were 26 students in the first year of the school, coming from as far away as Alabama and Ohio. “The faculty consisted of Mrs. Nichols, who lectured on midwifery, the diseases of women and children, and special topics in physiology; and Dr. Nichols, who modestly covered chemistry, anatomy, physiology, pathology, theory and practice of medicine, and surgery.” (Blake, 1962, p.228) After 3 months, 20 students including 9 women were awarded diplomas.

Mary Nichols’ Writings

One becomes quickly impressed with Nichols’ writings. Especially engaging are her sharply intelligent observations and understanding of hydrotherapy. Each page in her 106-page tome, Experience in Water-Cure: A familiar exposition of the Principles and Results of Water Treatment, in the Cure of Acute and Chronic Diseases, has valuable clinical pearls that are worthy of note. To do Mary Nichols justice, I would love to include every one of her insightful guiding pearls; however, I am faced with the problem of where to begin. I will make an attempt to capture a few. She writes,

The efficacy of the water cure depends always upon the amount of vital energy or reactive force in the patient; and this in low and chronic diseases must be economized with the greatest care. Mistakes and failures in water cure, have come from not knowing how to adapt the treatment to the patient’s reactive power. (Nichols, 1851, p.10)

The therapies used by naturopathic doctors today differ from those even a decade back, and particularly a century ago. Hydrotherapy was once a primary therapeutic intervention. Today’s naturopathic doctors have replaced water with so many other tools.

Acute Diseases

Infectious diseases in the 19th century were responsible for the highest mortality rates. However, for those practicing water cure, diseases such as smallpox, typhus, or cholera were easily treated. She writes, “Death, by any such disease, in this practice, is unheard of, and could only result from the grossest ignorance in the physician, or some terrible complication of hereditary disease in the patient.” (Nichols, 1851, p.11) Water applications allow the body to purge itself of toxins or toxemia, shortening the duration of healing. Water does in a few days what the body left to its own healing process could accomplish only in weeks or months. Her list of diseases treated successfully is impressive and – as was typical of Nichols – humbly documented. Her achievement seems even more remarkable when compared with contemporary naturopathy, where treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis often includes the use of suppressive antibiotics.

Nichols contended, so aligned was she with the principles upon which Priessnitz based his outstanding work, that the treatment of acute disease was simple and easy for the practitioner. The treatment of acute diseases often necessitated just a few days for resolution; however, a chronic presentation could require weeks and months of persevering attention, according to the vitality of the body and the nature of the disease. (Nichols, 1851, p.12)

Sister and Brother Die of TB

At age 12, Mary Nichols witnessed her sister die of tuberculosis. As well, her brother “was attacked with violent bleeding of the lungs, and a hard cough, but such was the strength of his constitution that it was four years before he could die, though he was subjected to all the poisonous medication of the allopathic profession in which he was educated.” (Nichols, 1851, p.20) Shortly after the death of her brother, she too had consumption. Her first thought after her first attack was that she too was soon for the grave. She writes,

I remember my feelings when my lungs were first ruptured. The blood rushed rapidly into the trachea and as I threw it off by violent coughing, the thought of … my great work for women rushed through my mind. … The thought of leaving my mission unfulfilled, of leaving woman to suffer and die under the black pall of ignorance that enveloped her then, was more than I could bear. (Nichols, 1851, p.20)

She writes, “By constant bathing, exercise in the open air, and [by] very simple and careful living, … I became rapidly better.” (Nichols, 1851, p.20) Describing her self-treatment, she summarizes: “I used sponge and pouring baths [affusions], and wore constantly my whole chest and abdomen enveloped in wet bandages.” (Nichols, 1851, p.90) After resuming her work, she soon found herself overworking, and experienced a second bout of consumption. “In about four days I bled almost three quarts from my lungs. I was reduced to infantile weakness. In this state I sent for a German water cure and homeopathic physician who attended me with great care and kindness till the bleeding ceased.” (Nichols, 1851, p.20) As soon as she was able, she once again began water applications with “the most untiring zeal.”

Her recovery was speedy, and although she enjoyed good health, her lungs were quite susceptible to bad air, causing coughing episodes which she had always curtailed by using water-cure applications and general hygiene.

To appreciate the scope of what water cure was capable of addressing, we need only examine a water treatment used by Nichols for a case of tuberculosis.


Fatalities arising from tuberculosis, or consumption, were ghastly in the mid-19th century. The statistics of death in New York from this wretched affliction are telling: the average age at death was 20 years and 8 months; 1 in 38 died in NYC. (Frieden et al, 2005, p.9) Nichols writes, “Let me commence this subject by the statement of one appalling fact. Every week, from 30 to 50 persons die of consumption in the city of New York.” (Nichols, 1851, p.80) In 1850, 696 000 people were living in New York City.

Symptoms of tuberculosis varied greatly. Nichols writes, “In some cases the cough is slight, and the quantity of matter expectorated is very small. In other cases, the cough is violent and the expectoration of purulent matter is large. Some cases are attended by profuse bleeding from the lungs; some have slight bleeding, and some none at all. In some cases there is much pain and difficulty of breathing, and much fever.” (Nichols, 1851, p.80) The treachery of tuberculosis is that there is so much hope during treatment that the patient will recover and not manifest illness as harshly. She explains, “The decay is so gradual, and the fever so stimulates the hue of health, that often, very often, both patients and friends are deceived almost to the last hour.” (Nichols, 1851, p.80) “The lungs being a great deterging or cleansing organ, large quantities of morbid matter are conveyed out of the system by means of the lungs.” (Nichols, 1851, p.81) The causes outlined by Nichols included “the deficiency of vital energy from birth, … [and] the diseasing influences of civic life.” (Nichols, 1851, p.82)

Nichols writes at length about what contemporary healthcare professionals call social and environmental determinants. These “civic influences,” in Nichols’ view, promoted tuberculosis and were mostly due to ignorance of living, eating, breathing, and to unhealthy habits. Drugs, vaccinations, over-crowding in living quarters, lack of fresh air, poor food choices, tight lacing of corsets, and lack of bathing and proper attention to the skin were among the litany of causes she identified.

In her view, too, healthy skin acts much like lungs in its ability to disperse unwanted matter from the body. She writes, “I would here remark that, the first end to be attained in the treatment of consumption is to restore the action of the skin. If water cure treatment is not adapted to the reactive power, it may be made to diminish still farther the already enfeebled action of the skin.” (Nichols, 1851, p.91) Nichols emphasized in her writings that the treatment must always fit the patient.

A Case of TB & Healing Reaction

A woman presented with a violent cough incessantly day and night, and there was a large quantity of matter on expectoration. She was weak and unable to sleep.

Treatment began by giving her a wet sheet wrap for the purpose of determining the reactive power of her body. “She was enveloped in so much of the wet sheet as would allow of reaction and consequent heat readily.” (Nichols, 1851, p.91) Nichols also applied wet bandages over the lungs and abdomen. These water applications were applied such that there were no chills as a result.

“The first effect of the water in this case was exhilaration of spirits. The patient became very hopeful. The next effect was a violent diarrhoea.” Because Nichols had guarded the skin from chill, the diarrhea was not a result of careless practice. Instead, the diarrhea was “a salutary crisis, and such as it proved.” (Nichols, 1851, p.91)

“The diarrhea was treated with warm fomentations to the bowels, injections [enemas], fasting, and water drinking. She was greatly relieved by [the treatments].” (Nichols, 1851, p.91) The next healing reaction was “an eruption over the entire portion of the chest and abdomen which was covered with wet bandages.” (Nichols, 1851, p.91) The eruption was raised blisters containing a thick yellow matter that consistently drained from the surface. The oozing matter on the skin was identical to what was expectorated. She writes, “As the exudations went on, the cough continued to decrease, and in four weeks from the time that she commenced treatment, she coughed not at all at night and she rested quietly.” (Nichols, 1851, p.92) Her strength was greatly improved; needing to return home, the woman left the water treatment. At home, she was under suppressive drug treatment and died within a year.

Nichols remarks on other cases featuring violent cough and lots of expectoration, “yet the patient was cured by gentle and long continued water treatments.” (Nichols, 1851, p.92)

A Lasting Legacy

The regime followed by Mary Nichols, which provided so much relief for her patients, was established by Vincent Priessnitz. The drugs that would have been administered to patients would have been very toxic, endangering even the strongest. Nichols left a legacy of successful healing in the hydrotherapy tradition for which we are grateful today. She was a pioneer on so many fronts. We owe her a considerable debt, not only for the exceptional clinical pearls on water cure, but also for her courageous efforts in social reform, whether in the establishment of Memnonia Institute or in the bravery needed to lecture broadly and plainly on women’s health issues at a time when repression of such topics was the norm.

* Travel across the Atlantic Ocean was exclusively done by ship; the crowded conditions resulted in an epidemic of typhus, also called ship fever.


Blake, J. B. (June, 1962). Mary Gove Nichols, Prophetess of Health. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106 (3).
Lust, B. (1902). True method of healing. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, III (2), 72-73.
Frieden, T. R., New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (2005). Protecting Public Health in New York City: 200 years of Leadership, 1805-2005.  Available at: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/bicentennial/historical-booklet.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2018.
Nichols, M. S. G. (1851). Experience in Water-Cure: Principles and Results of Water Treatment. Water-Cure Library, Volume II. New York, NY: Fowlers and Wells, Publishers.

Photo by Zé Zorzan on Unsplash

Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE, graduate of CCNM, is a licensed ND in Oregon and has developed an extensive armamentarium of traditional nature-cure tools for her patients. Especially interested in balneotherapy, botanical medicine, breathing, and nutrition, she is a frequent presenter. As Curator of the Rare Books Collection at NUNM, she has completed Hydrotherapy in Naturopathic Medicine, the tenth book of the 12-book series in the Hevert Collection. Her next large project is the completion of her new medical spa, located in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan – a magical, saline lake. Come join her for the Inaugural “Finding Our Roots Again Retreat,” August 2019.

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