Dr Robert Wittie

IF Mrs Thomasin Farrer is credited with the discovery in the 1620s of Scarborough’s spa spring waters, then Dr Robert Wittie was the one who awarded them national reputation. Wittie’s Scarborough Spaw or A Description of the Nature and Vertues of the Spaw at Scarbrough in Yorkshire, first published at York and in London in the summer of 1660, was the first to put Scarborough on the health resort map.

During Mrs Farrer’s lifetime, the waters had only local fame. Wittie himself, who was born in Beverley and briefly a schoolmaster at Hull Grammar School, first tasted them in 1637 or 1638. However, during the next two decades, Scarborough was the last place anyone anywhere would have chosen to visit in search of health or pleasure. In the 1640s, the town suffered bombardment, two violent sieges, food rationing and martial law. In the 1650s, its Puritan regime cracked down on all forms of public entertainment and even private enjoyment. Nevertheless, even in such unfavourable circumstances, we find a visitor from Hull writing of “the season of the year at Scarborough Spaw.”

It was Wittie’s medical credentials that endowed his book with widespread authority and credibility. After Beverley Grammar School, he had gone up to King’s College, Cambridge and graduated from there with a BA in 1633, a MA in 1636 and ultimately with a doctorate in medicine. His time as a teacher at Hull was soon followed in 1641 by the grant of a licence to practise medicine. Since then he had become known and respected in York as well as Hull and had won the trust of a number of high-ranking patients and patrons. Well before 1660, Wittie was advising his patients to travel to the coast and drink Scarborough’s restorative waters. For instance, in 1645, Royalist survivors of the great siege of Scarborough castle who were suffering from advanced scurvy and other effects of malnutrition were cured by his administration of Mrs Farrer’s spring.

In fact, the first edition of Wittie’s Scarbrough Spaw said little that a professional physician of today would recognise and even less approve. It began with a tedious, unscientific and lengthy lecture, extolling the virtues of water and deploring the ill-effects of alcohol. Before Noah had discovered wine men had lived up to a thousand years, but afterwards life-expectancy had fallen at best to a mere three score and ten!

Scarborough water, he continued, was a tested cure for almost every known human disease or disability, but it was recommended particularly for those who were afflicted with excessive wind, constipation and “frequent fluxes of the belly.” Like most of his contemporary physicians, Wittie had no time for fruit, vegetables or salads, or even fresh air and outdoor exercise.

Spawers, he wrote, should come to Scarborough between May and September, when the waters were at their strongest and not diluted by winter rains. Starting with only two or three half pints every morning, they ought to increase their daily intake gradually to four or five pints!

By 1667, when Wittie’s second edition on Scarborough Spaw was published, he was able from personal and professional observation to recommend the water there for diseases of the head, the nerves, and the lungs, as well as the old favourites, “hypochondriack melancholly and windiness.” But he warned his readers that Scarborough spa waters did not travel well: for the best results they should be taken at source.

Secondly, a new recipe from the good doctor was as far-fetched as it was revolutionary. Again, from his own experience, as a sufferer from severe and chronic gout, he recommended to others with the same malady a daily bathe in Scarborough’s cold, sea water.

Bath, Bristol, Tunbridge Wells, Epsom, Buxton and Harrogate were already well established health spa resorts, but all of them were inland and at best could offer only hot, mineral springs. What Wittie suggested was entirely new.

Scarborough’s South Bay sea was salty, rough and fiercely cold, even in summer and therefore, in Wittie’s view, ideal for a drastic if certain remedy, particularly if followed by a warm bed.

Without being aware of it, Wittie’s unprecedented publicity was eventually to make Scarborough into Britain’s first seaside recreation and health resort. He did not make Scarborough’s seas the coldest around the British Isles, nor did he locate the spa spring at the base of a vertical cliff on the seashore sands, and he did not make those foreshore sands firm, flat, clean and extensive, but these fortunate natural coincidences ensured that Scarborough’s South Bay could become a pioneer playground for the privileged who could afford to journey and spend weeks there. During the next two centuries, cold sea bathing became more popular than drinking the spa waters.

Wittie’s reign as Scarborough’s resident leading physician was short-lived. Very soon other self-important and ambitious doctors of medicine descended on the town to question his claims and advance their own. During the 1670s there was a spirited, defamatory exchange in print which drew further national attention to Scarborough.

One particularly vulgar attack on Wittie described him as “the Crackfart of Scarborough Spaw.” The insult came from a champion of Harrogate.

Nevertheless, Wittie’s and Scarborough’s reputation survived more or less intact. In 1678, just to prove how learned he was, Wittie translated his book into Latin and published it as Fons Scarburgensis. Two years later, Oxford University welcomed him as one of theirs and the Royal College of Physicians made him an honorary fellow.

Wittie retired to London and died there in 1684 at the age of 71. His historical importance was recognised in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 320 years later.