Letter asking about benefits of continuous bath treatment, 1933

The Continuous Bath

The original Criminal Insane Building in Penetanguishene was designed to provide hydrotherapy - specifically, continuous bath treatments - directly on the wards. At the end of each of the four wards, beside the sunroom, was a room fitted with four bathtubs.

In the continuous bath, a patient was placed into a tub containing warm water. The water was kept at a consistent temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 36 degrees Celsius) and was designed to flow continuously in and out of the tub throughout the treatment. A patient could expect to be kept within the tub for between four to five hours at a time. Some techniques involved placing cold water on the head of the patient during the procedure, but it is unclear whether this element was a part of the practice in Penetanguishene.

The bathtubs would have looked like a standard issue cast-iron, porcelin-lined tub, much like something one would have had at home in the 1930s. There would have been two notable differences between the common home bathtub and the continuous tub in the hospital:

1. Faucet: To minimize the risk of injury to the patient that could be caused by a protruding faucet, water in the continuous tub was instead directed by means of tubes inserted directly into the tub itself.

2. Restraint sheet: Patients were expected to remain in the tubs for periods of several hours at a time. To prevent them from getting out, continuous baths were fitted with a canvas sheeting through which the head of the patient would protrude, keeping the rest of their body below the surface of the water.   

The premise behind the continuous bath was that submersion in warm water for an extended period of time had calming, sedative effects on the body as well as detoxifying benefits:  

"A man to whom it may have been necessary to give a hypodermic injection before he could be got into the tub, becomes as quiet as a normal man. The running water also carries off any toxic poisons that may be given off by the body" ("Ontario Hospital is a fine modern structure," 1932).   

Annotations in a copy of the 1945 edition of A Manual for Training Attendants in Mental Hospitals from the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care's library imply a few rules that may have been followed in Penetanguishene. Specifically, that the treatment be administered only on the written order of a physician, that it be explained to the patient prior to commencing, that visitors and other patients be kept out of the room during treatment, and that the patient should remain in sight of an attendant at all times.

Hydrotherapy was not specialized for the criminally insane population - it was also offered in the main building at the Ontario Hospital, Penetanguishene during this period and was likewise common at other mental health facilities in the province (Dyck et al., 2008-2009). The Criminal Insane Building did, however, have an advantage over the older buildings in Penetanguishene: its continuous baths were on the same floor as the patients' rooms. At the main building the baths were located in the basement and concerns were raised over the risk of pneumonia when transferring patients through the cold on the way back to their rooms.

History of the Continuous Bath

Hydrotherapy - the use of water as a means of treatment - has a long history within psychiatry (Richardson & Walker, n.d.). Water of varying temperatures has been applied in differing ways to the body in order to sedate or excite the individual. Popular techniques during the early-to-mid twentieth century included spraying pressurized water at specified parts of the body, wrapping the body tightly in a wet sheet, and pouring water over the head.  

The continuous bath was first discussed in North America as a potential treatment for insanity in 1854. By the turn of the twentieth century, it would be standard practice in mental health institutions. The continuous tub became increasingly obsolete beginning in the 1950s due to the advent of the new psychopharmaceuticals.

By Jennifer L. Bazar

Page Last Updated: June 4, 2015


Anonymous. (1854). Proceedings of the ninth annual meeting of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, American Journal of Insanity, 11(1), 37-57.

Dyck, N., Fenton, L., George, H., Klymkiw, K., LaBlance, R., Leifso, J., Ma, M., Malek, S., Maloney, S., McCracken, K., Nelligan, M., Robertson, A., Robinson, M., Rodger, D. W., & Tran, V. (2008-2009). Restoring perspective: Life and treatment at the London Asylum. Retrieved from https://www.lib.uwo.ca/archives/virtualexhibits/londonasylum/index.html  

Fitzsimmons, L. W. (1945). A manual for training attendants in mental hospitals. New York, NY: American Psychiatric Association.

Lynch, D. O. (1934). Annual report for 1933.

(1938). Annual Report for 1937. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/n04ontariosession70ontauoft  

Majerus, B. (2011). La baignoire, le lit et la porte. La vie sociale des objets de la psychiatrie [The bathtub, the bed, and the door. The social life of psychaitric objects]. Geneses, 1(82), 95-119. Retrieved from http://www.cairn.info/revue-geneses-2011-1-page-95.htm

Ontario Hospital addition is fine modern structure. (1932, November 24). The Midland Free Press.

Richardson, D., & Walker, S. A. (n.d.). The rise and decline of psychiatric hydrotherapy: An online exhibit from Oskar Diethelm Library. Retrieved from http://www.cornellpsychiatry.org/history/osk_die_lib/hydrotherapy/default.htm 

Wright, R. (1932). Hydrotherapy in hospitals for mental diseases. Boston, MA: The Tudor Press.

To Cite this Page

Bazar, J. L. (2015). Hydrotherapy. In J. L. Bazar (Ed.), Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit. Retrieved from https://historyexhibit.waypointcentre.ca/exhibits/show/treatment/hydrotherapy