Historic Brighton: Dr Richard Russell and the Miracle of Sea-Water Therapy
Dr Richard Russell was an 18th Century physician who is known for having encouraged his patients to use a form of water therapy that involved the submersion or bathing in, and drinking of, seawater.
But more than this, Dr Russell is credited with having been instrumental in the transformation of Brighton & Hove from fishing village to holiday destination.
During the peak of the bathing boom, when Britons were taking to spa towns like Bath for their supposed healing properties, Russell saw an opportunity. He relocated his practice to Brighton, on the site of what is now the Royal Albion Hotel, where he made it his mission to convince people of the sea-water’s similar healing properties.
If you had been a patient of Richard’s back then, he’d have had you on a course of treatment which included regular bathing in the sea and of course the regular ingestion of sea-water, because we all know that there’s nothing like a pint of salty water to cure those pesky ailments.
In 1750, he published a Latin dissertation De Tabe Glandulari, in which he recommended the use of sea-water for the cure of enlarged lymphatic glands. This was translated into English in 1752 as Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Affections of the Glands by W. Owen in London, and in 1769 it reached a sixth edition. It was the first book to make a connection between drinking and bathing in seawater and improvements in health.
Dr Russell recommended especially that people try the water near Brighton, proclaiming that sea water was superior to those cures provided by inland spas. His ideas were widely acclaimed in England and abroad, and despite dispute regarding the best ways to use sea water, few disputed its value.
By 1753, his treatment became so popular that he moved his surgery to Brighton. He bought a plot of land at the south of Old Steine—a sheltered, marshy area of common land on the seafront—for £40 (£6,000 as of 2018),and built a house there.
The red-brick, gabled structure was Brighton’s largest house to date, and accommodated both patients and Russell himself. The rear opened directly out to the beach.
Dr Russell’s efforts have been credited with playing a role in the populist “sea side mania of the second half of the eighteenth century”, although broader social movements were also at play. He benefitted sufficiently well from his practice to build a large house on the Steine, in 1753 on the site of what is now the Royal Albion Hotel. The plaque on the wall of the Royal Albion Hotel says simply: “If you seek his monument, look around“.
This house was large enough to accommodate not only his household, but visiting patients as well.
After Dr Russell’s death in 1759, his house was rented to seasonal visitors, including the brother of George III the Duke of Cumberland in 1779. On 7 September 1783 the Prince Regent (then the Prince of Wales) visited his uncle. The Prince’s subsequent patronage of the town for the next 40 years was central to the rapid growth of the town and the transition of the fishing village of Brighthelmston to the modern town of Brighton.
We reached out to medical professionals who have strongly advised against a course of Dr Russell’s prescribed treatments and have urged readers not to drink sea-water as it will make them very ill. We think we’ll side with the boffins on this one…