It is 250 years since the death of Dr Richard Russell whose eccentric sea-water cure helped make Brighton the pre-eminent resort of England.
Popular mythology has it that Brighton was a poor fishing village before Russell, a Lewes physician, persuaded posh people in the mid-1700s it would be good for their health if they drank from the ocean.
In fact, Brighton was flourishing at that time, but Russell helped make it a health resort, which in turn led the Prince Regent to build his palace there.
Russell was by no means the first man to suggest the sea water cure. It had been promulgated by sundry medics of varying quality for at least a century beforehand.
But his work on the subject caught the public’s imagination. In 1753 he moved to Brighton and built a house where the Royal Albion Hotel now stands.
Russell’s book had the ponderous title of Dissertation On The Use Of Sea Water In Diseases Of The Glands and it was not pleasant reading, concentrating a great deal on skin eruptions with remedies that were equally disgusting. Blood letting was also suggested, along with crabs’ eyes, woodlice, tar and other oddities added to the sea water.
He wrapped the remedy in a lot of mumbo jumbo, invoking the names of ancient physicians, for it never would have done to suggest a simple cure available at the beach to anyone.
But it seemed to work, both in purging the body after it had been drunk and in disinfecting the body when applied externally, for this was in an age when many people did not wash much.
The doctor used common sense in the case of children, suggesting fresh air, sea bathing and the removal of heavy clothing from their bodies.
Fishing folk adored the doctor because he encouraged visitors to hire men and women to help them enter the sea; these people were then called dippers. Russell also improved the spa at St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove where there was a chalybeate spring.
He was convinced by their excellent teeth that sea water was a good dentifrice and he may also have been right about that.
His sea-water cure impressed the medical establishment and he was in touch with great physicians of his day. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1752.
Other doctors followed on his success, including Dr Anthony Relan, who wrote the first guide to Brighton and recommended its fresh air to visitors.
There was also a Dr John Awsiter who suggested bathing should be indoors rather than outside, where the breezes could easily become gales.
Dr Awsiter constructed his own sea-water baths in the appropriately named Pool Valley, which were well patronised. His venture led to several large and successful imitations.
Russell wrote a second book on sea water cures in 1754 which was also well read.
He died suddenly in London while visiting a friend and was buried in South Malling Church at Lewes on Christmas Day, 1759, aged 72.
A tablet to his memory in Greek bore the legend: “The sea washes away all the ills of mankind.” But more people have seen the simple memorial on the Royal Albion which is the same as Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s – “If you seek his monument look around”.