Cooking in the Victorian Turkish bath

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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1858: the birth of a myth

Stories about frying eggs, or a steak, inside the Turkish bath have become part of the folklore of the bath, starting within a year or so of the first bath being built. Stewart Rolland, standing in for David Urquhart whose baby son William had just died, was giving a lecture at the Swindon Mechanics' Institution in 1858. He wanted to show how the body was able to adjust internally to external high temperatures. His lecture was reported in a local paper and reprinted in The Free Press:

He (Mr ROLLAND) a few days ago spent some time in a bath room heated to 220 degrees, or 8 degrees above boiling water; and it was not only not inconvenient, but it was the most delightful hour he had ever spent. Had he taken a leg of mutton into the room with him it would have been cooked, or eggs, they would have been boiled; yet upon placing the bulb of the thermometer to the root of his tongue, it indicated only 90 degrees of heat, or that of a healthy body.'

1860: lighthearted suggestion to urban myth

As eminent a physician as Erasmus Wilson helped give rise to the belief that Rolland's lighthearted imaginary example had actually happened. In a lecture read at the 28th Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association held in Torquay at the beginning of August, and later printed in the British Medical Journal, Wilson said:

The essence of the quality of a high temperature of air is its dryness. While the human body can support a temperature of 300° and 400° of Fahrenheit in dry air, hot vapour is scalding at 120° and water boils at 212°. A gentleman whom I had frequently the pleasure of meeting at Mr Witt's [Turkish bath at his home in London], wrote to his friend, in corroboration of the account which had been given him of the heat of the thermae:—'I have been at Mr Witt's bath; all that he told us is true. I cooked a mutton chop on my knee! and in eating it afterwards, the only inconvenience that I experienced was in the matter of the bread; it became toast before I could get it to my mouth!'

1887: total acceptance

A quarter of a century later, the story had been incorporated into explanations of the body's reaction to heat in a most respectable book on the Turkish bath by Frederic Coley. The story leads directly to, and is seemingly of equal importance to, a description of a series of actual scientific experiments. These were conducted on himself in the late 1870s by William James Fleming, Lecturer in Physiology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary School of Medicine, while in the Turkish baths at the Arlington Baths Club, Glasgow. Coley writes:

A baronet, who had been sceptical about what he had heard of the power of the human frame to resist high temperature, was induced to make an experiment for himself in a private Turkish bath, heated to a temperature considerably above that which is ordinarily employed. He afterwards wrote to a friend—'I cooked a mutton chop on my knee! And in eating it afterwards the only inconvenience that I experienced was in the matter of the bread—it became toast before I could get it to my mouth.' Now, why was not the worthy baronet cooked himself—as well as his mutton chop—under these circumstances. The fact is that although he was surrounded by an atmosphere of a temperature above that of boiling water, his own temperature was raised a very few degrees above that natural standard, 98.4°. Dr Fleming remained in a Turkish bath for an hour, the temperature being at first 170°, lowered gradually to 130°. A specially constructed thermometer placed in his mouth registered the highest point when he had been in the bath fifty minutes—viz, 101.5°. It is evident, therefore, that in some way the living human body has the power of keeping itself cool in a hot atmosphere, as well as keeping warm in a cold one. Were it not so, such experiments as those just described must be necessarily fatal, for the muscle of the heart is irrevocably spoiled (its myosin coagulated) at a temperature of 115°, and probably its power would be seriously damaged at a point considerably below this. In fact, we know by experience that in cases of high fever death usually occurs very  soon after  the temperature rises above 108°, unless it is very quickly brought down again by artificial means.

While there are still some Victorian Turkish baths around, are there any volunteers to undertake the experiment themselves, under strictly controlled conditions? (It is probably better, not to say more economical, to omit the mutton chop and stay with the egg on toast.)

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