The palsy

A condition treated very successfully at the General Hospital was the palsy with colic, sometimes known as the Devonshire colic and later shown to be due to lead poisoning. 

This condition was prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries. It affected poor people, particularly tradesmen and farm workers. This class of person was often paid in pints of cider, a drink frequently contaminated by lead, particularly in the western counties of Somerset and Devonshire. 
A cider press - the chutes were often lined with lead. The metal was found to impart an agreeable sweet taste to the drink, caused by lead reacting with acetic acid.
One of the honorary physicians, Dr Rice Charleton (right), published an analysis of paralytic cases admitted to the General Hospital and noted the excellent outcome when palsy and colic were associated. He failed to associate these cases with lead poisoning, an observation which was made soon afterwards by the king's physician, Sir George Baker.
Recent research conducted by Paul O'Hare and Audrey Heywood have provided evidence that regular prolonged immersion in water can bring about an acceleration of lead excretion. The water, however, does not have to be thermal to have a beneficial effect;  neither drinking nor immersion in mineral water has any measurable advantage over heated ordinary water. This was suspected long ago - William Cullen, a respected physician and medical educator living in the Edinburgh in the 18th century suggested that patients who could not afford the trip to Bath could derive just as great benefit to taking a warm bath in the comfort of their own home. There were other sceptics at this time and afterwards. Tobias Smollett, William Saunders and William Heberden were all champions of ordinary water. This sort of thinking was not good for those medical practitioners who had a vested interest in the success of Bath as a spa town.

Dr Charleton's portrait, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, can be seen in the Holborne of Menstrie Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath.

 Return to the complete picture       Return to Gazetteer