Suffrage Leader Dr. Carrie Young & the Nicasio Water-Cure
By Carol Acquaviva
Nineteenth-century phrases like “peculiar nervous diseases affecting women,” “women’s ills,” and “female weakness disorders” created a siren song in advertisements. In the latter half of the century, a deluge of ads for treatments of various ills relating to women’s health and lifestyles became as ubiquitous as newspapers themselves.
Dr. Carrie F. Young believed in treating individuals with “non-medicine-medicine,” that “nature must work her own cure.” Carrie was both a medical practitioner and an early activist for California suffrage and leader in the temperance movement. It makes sense that these interests intersected, given Carrie’s keen awareness of social movements at a time in American history when women were fighting to obtain more opportunities, speak their minds, and advocate for themselves.
In 1884 Carrie became the first woman to receive a medical diploma in California, by way of the Oakland College of Medicine. However, she appeared to have studied to be a physician and had been calling herself a doctor, in the decades previous. In 1870, Carrie and her husband, Dr. William J. Young, published the first issue of the Woman’s Pacific Coast Journal (“In the interest of women and children”). An early review of the Journal said “if the first number is any indication of the future, the interests of the human family generally will be promoted by its circulation. It has little to say of suffrage, but much concerning woman’s health, which is, in our opinion, commencing at the right end of the ‘woman question.’” Another paper advertised the publication as a practical guide on preventative medicine, or “how to live when well, so as to keep well,” and “how married people can live together happily.”
Within a year, they had amassed a readership of 1,000 paid subscribers. Later the publication became the monthly Pacific Journal of Health (“Devoted to Health, Temperance, Literature and Labor Interests”), also published in San Francisco. Therein they expounded their views on hygiene, infectious diseases, and most significantly, nutrition and eating habits. The journal’s contents, with a focus on eclectic medicine, explained the moral and physiological dangers of tobacco, opium, and especially alcohol, and advocated for fresh air, eating in moderation, and restful sleep.
Although the Journal featured contributing authors and some reprints of articles published elsewhere, the Young’s own institution in Nicasio, advertised as “The Nicasio Water Cure” was heavily touted. Water cure, originally devised in a formal way by Silesian peasant Vincent Priessnitz, made its way to the United States around the 1840s after growing popularity in England and Scotland. Water cure was an alternative approach to health that rejected the administering of medicine, under the assumption that modern medicine would more often fail at curing disease and ultimately do harm. Considered both prevention and treatment, water cure was applicable to men, women, and children. The concept that women’s health required specialized care was becoming more mainstream and developed into its own commercial enterprise, again in parallel with the movement to educate and empower women outside of their traditional roles at home.
“Water is the only drink,” said Carrie, who advocated strongly for temperance. “Pure water is perfect; no improvement is possible — none is needed.” Hydropathy, or the use of water to cure or alleviate disease and pain, was frequently paired with physical regimes, a nutritious diet, and a healthy sleep schedule. Some aspects of water-cure were more elaborate, for instance the processes of inducing sweating, bandaging the body with cooling and warming cloths, and regular therapeutic foot baths. The timing of bathing was also important, for instance, right after a meal or first thing in the morning. Overall, the crux of the water-cure was a homeopathic approach to treatment and prevention of symptoms and disease.
In April of 1872, the Marin Journal announced that the Nicasio Water Cure had just begun operations. The following was reported in the Pacific Rural Press:
The Nicasio Hotel, a central figure of the valley, has been leased for a term of years to Dr. Wm. J. Young for a water-cure institution, and carpenters, plumbers, whitewashers and painters are busy in renovating the place. The house is capacious, having delightful location, wide halls, roomy porches and large ball-room; beautiful gardens and magnificent oaks surround the house, while a spring in a neighboring hillside supplies the hotel with water. There could be no better place on the coast for an institution of this kind, and this is the only regularly conducted water-cure in the State. Patients had commenced pouring in before we left.
The setting, with its abundant scenery and fresh air, away from the moral pitfalls of industrialized city life, was in itself curative. This wasn’t the first time Marin County was the setting for restorative health, nor would it be the last. Mission San Rafael Arcángel had been established in 1817 as a hospital mission used to treat sick Native Americans. Blithedale, on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais in today’s Mill Valley, built by another homeopathic physician, John J. Cushing, began as a sanitarium, while the high-end Hotel Rafael, whose lifetime coincided with Carrie Young’s in Marin, drew vacationers and summer residents to its grounds in great part because of its climate. Arequipa Sanatorium, established in Fairfax in 1911, was a successful women’s tuberculosis facility for care, treatment, and rehabilitation.
The Youngs described the weather at Nicasio as “a happy medium between the cold, harsh winds of the coast and the extreme heat of the interior towns.” The Nicasio Water-cure focused “particular attention to all diseases peculiar to women.” Patients were to be treated “hygienically, and without the use of medicine” in modern accommodations described as “scrupulously clean and orderly” and rooms that were well-ventilated.
At the end of October 1872 the Marin Journal reported that the “Directors of the Homeopathic Water Cure folded their wet blankets and departed to other scenes.” However, the Nicasio Water Cure was still advertised as far away as Portland, Oregon in late July 1873. In any case, operations in Nicasio seem to have been short lived. Whether the abandonment of the business happened because the cure wasn’t a cure, it wasn’t lucrative, or for other reasons, is not known.
Newspapers reported that William Young (who happened to be Carrie’s second husband) died in 1876, a few years after he and Carrie had moved to California from the Midwest. It is not entirely clear whether William was directly involved in the journals, or the Nicasio Water Cure, or if his name was attached to these to increase validity. Nor is there proof that William was a degreed medical professional.
Even during her Nicasio days, Carrie had been a sought-after lecturer making appearances throughout California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and as far away as western Canada. For decades, Carrie addressed groups on the topics of temperance, women’s suffrage, and women’s health. Her medical background and experience provided a differently-informed perspective to the matters in which she spoke; her angle was often along the lines of a scientific approach to temperance.
Establishment of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874 coincided with the end of the Nicasio Water-Cure. The wide-reaching temperance movement which attracted thousands across California became intertwined with the fight for women’s suffrage as women were seen as the “purifiers” of the household. Carrie (and William) saw water cure as an option to avoid the ills of alcohol; Carrie took up the baton as an outspoken advocate for the legal rights of women, many of whom suffered as legal property of their husbands. In 1870 — the same year she issued the first Women’s Pacific Coast Journal, and was one of 3,300 to sign the petition for woman suffrage to California’s State Legislature — she addressed the Woman’s Suffrage Association. Two years later she delivered the opening address at the Oregon State Temperance Alliance’s “Temperance Jubilee” and the first-known lecture in Idaho on the topic of women’s suffrage. Bringing her eclectic medical background to the speech, she stressed abstention from alcohol in any form as a beverage, although not for “mechanical purposes” in the treatment of disease.
Carrie presented a sound argument against another radical idea that bridged alternative medicine and women’s rights themes: “the dangerous and absurd” fashion of tight dresses. A strongly-worded article on this topic originally published in the Journal of Health was re-printed in the more widely-distributed Pacific Rural Press. Among her reasoning was that corset-wearing was an affront to both the natural balance of the body and to the Creator. She put forth the “if God wanted women to wear girdles He would have given them to us” explanation, and was a century ahead of her time on the call to action to burn one’s bra.
“So you think you could improve upon God’s plan of constructing the trunk of the body? He curiously adjusted and balanced the machinery of life inside a framework of bones…. But God’s wisdom is nothing to you! Oh, no! you know best of course! and therefore attempt to improve upon His plan by putting ribs of bone and steel on the outside of this delicate network…. This, dear, little, thoughtless woman, is the reason you are weak…. This is the reason you are debilitated and don’t know what to do with yourself. … Repent — prove yourself by your works — burn up your corsets. You will very soon regain vigor and bloom.”
Although Carrie was well regarded and respected by many, she felt the predictable backlash of those opposed to temperance and to women’s rights. In the summer of 1871 after a visit to Albany, Oregon where Carrie talked to a group of women about avoiding alcohol, the newspaper there gave an editorial description of her appearance and motives.
Mrs. Young is a lady of about forty summers, wears curls, has a high forehead, a sallow complexion, a big mouth bearing a pleasant smile, is not a bit pretty, and is an educated, sensible, practical woman, if we may judge from her lectures, which abound in good sense, practical ideas and logical argument. If she will leave women’s rights alone, and devote her time and talents to the discussion of such subjects as she treated of in our city, no fear but that she will accomplish great good and become a blessing whenever her potent voice is heard.
A short time later, on the same lecture tour, a different Oregon newspaper provided an editorial review, describing her as a “pleasing, affable and a fluent speaker, [with] a ready command of language and a peculiar gift or faculty of swaying an audience such as but few possess. She is doing a good work for the elevation of her own sex and of humanity at large. She believes that the true solution of the intemperance question is the arming of woman with that most potent of all political weapons, the ballot.”
In 1874, Carrie wrote in a letter: “My topics these six months past are physiological, and health reform. The temperance reform is carried on where I have been by bigoted church people, who freeze me out when they learn I am not one of them. Hence as much as I have done for temperance it comes to nothing now.”
In 1877 she presented lectures on the topic of digestive health and disease caused by drinking alcohol. A year later she returned to expounding the water cure, and recommended water as primary treatment for poison ivy rash, in terms of not only washing of clothes and bedding, but applying water bottles directly to the skin.
Despite having labeled herself a medical doctor since at least 1870, Carrie formally received her medical degree from the Oakland College of Medicine in 1884. She had studied medicine at colleges in the East as a young woman, however women were not allowed to graduate with medical degrees at that time.
When Carrie died in 1911 at her home in Berkeley at the age of 83, she remarked on her deathbed that she felt she had been victorious in her long fight for women’s suffrage. Only weeks before her death, California had become the sixth state to allow women to vote. Voting rights, women’s rights, and how we publicly discuss women’s health issues are as relevant today as they were in her lifetime.