Isabella’s Mystery Illness and the Water Cure

Not long after Isabella married Ross Alden she became ill. She never specifically named her ailment, but in her memoirs and in her auto-biographically-based stories, she often mentioned trouble with her eyes and that she suffered greatly from what we would today know as migraine headaches.


She wrote:

“It must be understood that although I was at times a great sufferer, I was by no means a helpless invalid. But the intervals between days of terrible pain might have been described as times of dull and wearisome inanity. I could read only a few minutes at a time, with long intervals between the minutes.”

A Victorian-era wheelchair (from Pinterest)
A Victorian-era wheelchair (from Pinterest)

She saw a number of physicians all over the New York area, all of whom agreed that, if she was ever to get well, Isabella should take a “water cure” from Dr. Greene at the Castile Sanitarium in New York. Ross encouraged her to follow the doctors’ instructions.

Illustration of a "water cure," circa 1860.
Illustration of a “water cure,” circa 1860.

But Isabella rebeled. She told Ross, “You needn’t think I’m going to stop and see Dr. Anybody! I’m going home!”

So Ross helped her from the doctor’s office and took her to the next departing train. He tucked her into heavy robes so she would be warm while they traveled, and urged her to nap on the train.

When Isabella awoke she found they had reached their destination: The sanitarium and the famous doctor!

The Castile Sanitarium in 1905.
The Castile Sanitarium in 1905.

Isabella demanded an explanation.

Kindly and quietly Ross answered, “We are going to spend the night here and seek this doctor’s advice. Could conscientious people do otherwise?”

Another view of the Castile Sanitarium, as it appeared in 1910.
Another view of the Castile Sanitarium, as it appeared in 1910.

When Isabella finally met the famous Dr. Greene she was probably very surprised—first, because the esteemed Dr. Greene was very young (only about thirty-five years of age), and second—Dr. Green was a female!

Dr. Cordelia Agnes Greene, in an undated photo.
Dr. Cordelia Agnes Greene, in an undated photo.

Female doctors were very uncommon in the late 1860s when Isabella first visited Castile Sanitarium. But Dr. Cordelia Greene was a very impressive young woman. At the age of sixteen she began supporting herself as a teacher in order to earn the money to put herself through medical school. She worked long hours in large sanitariums to gain experience; and she helped her father, also a physician, open a small “water cure” facility on property he purchased in Castile, New York.

When her father died, Dr. Cordelia Greene took over his enterprise, and used the sulphur springs on the property to expand the practice’s offerings. Under her management, the sanitarium became one of the premier facilities in the country.

The Sanitarium in an undated photo.
The Sanitarium in an undated photo.

Famous patients flocked to her doors, including Frances Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; Susan B. Anthony, the noted leader of the suffrage movement; and Dr. Clara Swain, who opened the first hospital for women on the continent of Asia.

From a 1938 edition of The Castilian, the local newspaper (before the days of patient privacy laws).
From a 1938 edition of The Castilian, the local newspaper (before the days of patient privacy laws).

Dr. Cordelia believed in the importance of deep breathing, vigorous exercise, and proper hydration of the body. She started every day by visiting patients’ rooms and personally delivering a pitcher of water to ensure each patient drank a full glass of water before breakfast.

A view of the Sanitarium showing the pond and walking paths, about 1913.
A view of the Sanitarium showing the pond and walking paths, about 1913.

Dr. Cordelia made certain patients who were strong enough spent plenty of time out of doors. They gardened and played croquet, walked and swam, in between their scheduled hydrotherapy treatments.

The Maples, where the nursing staff lived on the Sanitarium grounds.
The Maples, where the nursing staff lived on the Sanitarium grounds.

One of the hydrotherapy treatments Dr. Cordelia prescribed for Isabella was a wet sheet pack. The purpose of the wet sheet pack was to draw toxins from the body and increase blood circulation.

A wet sheet pack is accomplished by wrapping the patient from head to toe in a wet (usually with cold water) sheet. The patient’s arms are straight at their sides, and the sheet is tightly wrapped around the patient like a cocoon.


Over this are wrapped several layers of woolen blankets, again from head to toe.


As the patient sweats, the secretions from her pores are trapped in the sheet, as the wool blankets prevent moisture from evaporating into the air.


Isabella wrote that she was glad to have gone to the sanitarium; and said that “the thing that seemed so hateful soon became pleasant.” She grew to love and greatly admire Dr. Greene, saying:

“She was the life and power and heart and soul of that great water cure—a doctor of wonderful skill, a woman whom everybody respected and loved and obeyed.”

Isabella stayed on at Castile Sanitarium for five months; and when she left, she rejoiced. She was cured!

“Never since that time have I had to bear for even a single hour that peculiar form of pain which had been my almost constant attendant for more than five years!”

You can learn more about Dr. Cordelia Greene and her accomplishments by following these links:

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Image of mother holding a baby“He was fed on brandy for days and weeks when a child. It was a physician’s prescription, you know.”

That was Mildred Powell’s explanation for Leonard Airedale’s alcohol dependence in the book, One Commonplace Day. In other words, Mildred believed the man she loved wasn’t to blame for his alcoholism—his doctor was.

Image of two beer steins filled with beer.Then, as now, the medical community and society at large struggled to discover the cause of adult alcoholism. How could some people have a glass of wine or beer on a strictly social basis, while others couldn’t take a sip of the stuff without forming an instant addiction?

In Leonard Airedale’s case, Mildred’s assessment would have made perfect sense. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, doctors often prescribed brandy, beer and other alcoholic drinks to patients, including children.

Image of a mother looking adoringly at her young son.Dr. Abraham Jacobi, known today as the father of American pediatrics, held alcohol in great esteem as a therapeutic agent for children. He authored several books in the 19th century on pediatric diseases, and influenced the way generations of physicians treated young patients. He believed that alcohol should be given to children to fight infection, and wrote that “There is no better antiseptic than alcohol beverages.”

Photograph of Dr. Abraham Jacobi
Abraham Jacobi, M.D.

In cases of typhoid, he wrote, “a child of three or four years may be saved by 100 or 200 ccm. of whiskey given daily, if by nothing else and escape the undertaker.”

And since 100 cubic centimeters of whiskey is equal to about 3-1/3 U.S. fluid ounces, the amount of whiskey he recommended for a three year old child was more than many adults could handle.

But that’s not all. If that daily dose of whiskey wasn’t effective, Dr. Jacobi recommended increasing the amount:

“Septic cases, with high fevers that will not improve after 100 or 200 centimetres of whiskey daily, are apt to do well with two or three times the dose, which, however, will cease to be tolerated as soon as the septic fever has passed by. Indeed I have seen such septic children of three or four years take 500.0 [ccm.] of whiskey a day.” That equates to a full pint of whiskey for a child under the age of five!

Image of a mother kneeling beside a cradle and gazing at her baby lying in the cradle

Whiskey and brandy were frequently advertised in medical and nursing journals; those same journals then published articles extolling their merits.

Image of an advertisement for Cascade Pure Whiskey
A full-page ad in the December 1909 edition of the Interstate Medical Journal


Doctors primarily used brandy as a cardiac stimulant because it appeared to increase cardiac output and blood pressure. But it was also a depressant, so doctors also prescribed it as a sedative for adults, children, and even infants.

Brandy and whiskey weren’t the only alcoholic beverages doctors recommended for health reasons.

Advertisement for champagne from the Interstate Medical Journal
Advertisement in the December 1909 edition of the Interstate Medical Journal


In 1895 Anheuser-Busch began advertising a beer product called Malt-Nutrine. The beverage contained 2% alcohol and its target market was women, especially young mothers.

Image of a magazine ad for Malt-Nutrine showing woman holding a baby.The beverage was advertised in women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Munsey’s and Good Housekeeping. The majority of the ads featured images of nursing mothers and their babies. And although Malt-Nutrine had a 2% alcohol content, Anheuser-Busch advertised their product as alcohol free and claimed it gave special nourishment, restful sleep, strength and joyousness to mother and baby.

In other words, nursing mothers who drank Malt-Nutrine passed along its alcoholic effects to their infants.

Anheuser-Busch also advertised their product to physicians. They ran full-page advertisements in medical journals, such as this one in the January 3, 1918 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal:

Image of Malt-Nutrine ad claiing the product was a tonic with food value

They had an ingenious marketing plan that included sending artwork to doctors. The artwork incorporated images of their product and was framed or finished in a way that made it suitable for hanging in physician offices where it could be seen by patients and remind physicians to recommend it.

Image of a stork carrying bottles of Malt-Nutrine to baby storks in the nest.
Example of Malt-Nutrine “artwork” sent to physicians


They also ran contests for physicians. One contest encouraged doctors to write in with suggested titles for one of their art promotions; the winning title received a cash award of $250 in gold.

Image advertising Pabst Extract and offering a free 1910 American Girl Calendar.
A full-page ad for Pabst Extract offering free calendars to physicians. From the Interstate Medical Journal, December 1909.


Other brewers jumped into the beer-for-health market. Pabst unabashedly marketed their Pabst Extract product as “The Best Tonic” to promote sleep, strengthen nerves and invigorate the exhausted. In their ads to physicians Pabst also gave away free promotional items such as calendars and wall art.

Magazine for Pabst Extract showing mother and baby above the caption, "The Joys of Motherhood"
Ad in Vogue Magazine, 1915


Like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst targeted a good portion of their advertising at mothers. And like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst downplayed the alcoholic content of their product and claimed instead that their product was “food” essential to nursing mothers’ health.

Image of mother with toddler and baby beside an oversized bottle of Pabst Extract, along with three long paragraphs of promotional text.
This ad in the December 1907 issue of Harper’s Bazar encouraged expectant mother’s to “prepare the way” for baby’s birth by drinking Pabst Extract.


Seattle Brewing Company introduced their own malt product, Malt Rainier, which they, too, marketed to new and nursing mothers.

Ad for Malt Rainier showing mother cuddling baby with caption, "For those requiring additional nourishment and strength."

Image of Mother holding baby on her lap with a bottle of Malt Rainier in her hand.
A 1909 trade card for Rainier Beer


A toddler-aged baby drools as she holds a large stein full of beer in both hands, under caption "Ah were you only mine, how happy I would be, thou cold and foaming stein, so full of jollity.
A cartoon of a baby craving beer, about 1900.

Isabella Alden might have had these beers in mind when she created the character of Eben Bruce in One Commonplace Day. Eben was a medical student, studying under the direction of the town doctor. Eben developed a habit of drinking alone in his room when he was supposed to be studying.

His mother was at fault. She had sipped her beer when he was a creeping baby, to give her strength to care for him. He never thought of blaming his mother for the fire that burned in his veins and had roused into power with the first taste of alcohol. Blessed ignorance of babyhood! He did not know that she was to blame. Miserable ignorance of motherhood! She did not know it either.

Unfortunately, some brewers, like The Seattle Brewing Company, weren’t satisfied with just nursing mothers drinking their beer. They wanted the mothers’ children to drink it, too, and they targeted their marketing campaign for Rainier Beer directly at children. At the time, Rainier Beer had an alcohol content of 4.91%, similar to levels of today’s beer.

Ad for Rainier Beer showing a little boy crying to his mother because he doesn't have a beer.

Rainier Beer ad showing little girl and elderly man clinking their glasses of Rainier Beer with the caption "Beneficial to Young and Old"

Brewers got away with these tactics by labeling their beers as “pure” or “nourishing” or a “tonic.” By doing so, the product was considered medicinal.

1893 ad for Rainier Beer showing children dancing around an oversized bottle of beer as if it were a maypole with caption, "Pure Air, Pure Food, Pure Health. For Pure Drink get Rainier Beer"

Medicinal wines, whiskeys and beers were sold over the counter in drug stores. For serious alcohol consumption, the drugstore was the place to go; and since no prescription was necessary, virtually anyone could walk out of a drug store carrying a bottle of alcohol labeled as medicine.

In addition to glycerine, this product contained a whopping 11% alcohol. Ad from the Medical Women's Journal, September 1921.
This product contained a whopping 11% alcohol. Ad from the Medical Women’s Journal, September 1921.


Even a product as intoxicating as Vin Mariani was available for purchase without a prescription. Vin Mariani was incredibly popular because of the potent effects of its formula: 6 milligrams of cocaine for each ounce of Bordeaux wine.  Like other “medicinal” wines, it was advertised in medical journals and was widely prescribed to children.

Ad for Vin Mariani claiming "endorsements from upwards of 8,000 physicians."
Ad in The Cincinnati Eclectic Medical Journal, April 1903


Could it be that Isabella Alden was right to be alarmed? Did mothers unwittingly create “a thirst for alcohol” in their children at a young age, or even before they were born?  Perhaps, as Isabella wrote, the blessed ignorance of motherhood prevented them from knowing what kind of damage they may or may not have done to their beloved children simply by following doctors’ orders.

You can click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version.

Cover_One Commonplace Day resizedClick here to read more about Isabella Alden’s book, One Commonplace Day.

Click here to read a New York Historical Society blog post about Pabst Malt Extract.

Click here to learn more about Vin Mariani, the medicinal wine that took the world by storm.

Click here to read a biography of Abraham Jacobi, M.D.