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Roman Baths Museum at Bath in UK.

Woman Risks Brain Eating Disease To Take A 3-Hour Swim In Roman Baths

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2000-year-old Roman Baths in the English city of Bath have been closed for public bathing since 1978 after a girl died of a meningitis-related illness. But nevertheless, an exhibitionist in a somewhat desperate cry for attention took a three hour dip this week and while she is described in a Somerset Live article as a “bit of a hippy” it should maybe have read “a bit dippy” - as she actually put her life on the line.

Tourists at the scene took photos of the woman and one visitor said staff members “painstaking tried to negotiate her out”. After she finally did step out members of the crowd applauded her as she was escorted from the baths. It was only in May that another Somerset Live report told of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protesters taking a publicity seeking dip into the Bath waters while campaigning about the lack of government action on climate change.

The Ancient Origins Of Formal Bathing

The ancient Greeks created bathing regimens that we retain today in modern spa procedures and the ancient baths in the palace complex at Knossos in Crete dates from the mid-2nd millennium BC. Subsequently, bathing played a major part in ancient Roman society and it was one of the most common daily activities in Roman culture and was practiced by all social classes. And while today bathing is a private affair most often conducted in bathrooms within our homes in Roman times it was a communal activity.

In Roman colonies baths were built upon natural hot springs which occurred not only at Bath, but also at Buxton in England, among several major bath cities throughout Europe. These recreational centers included gymnasiums, libraries and lecture halls and the hot thermal waters not only helped sufferers of over eating and drinking, but more acute complaints such as rheumatism and arthritis. A Bristol Live article about the recent bathing incident says that the waters from the Roman baths in Bath are so powerful that at certain times of the year they “provided water-cure treatments on prescription through the NHS from 1948 until 1976.”

There has been no swimming permitted in the baths since 1976. (Anthony Brown / Adobe Stock)

There has been no swimming permitted in the baths since 1976. (Anthony Brown / Adobe Stock)

Why Swimming In Roman Baths Can Be Fatal

The Roman baths in the city of Bath were built over 2,000 years ago and this grand ancient monument was rediscovered under buildings in the late 1870s. An entire street was demolished while restoring the baths and they were opened for the public to enjoy in 1897. Traditionally, merry swimmers bathed in the baths once a year during the Bath Festival but the 1978 death pulled the plug on all those shenanigans as the water was found to be polluted by a dangerous amoeba that can lead to a form of meningitis.

A 2016 article in the Daily Mail detailed an annual clean-up operation at “Britain's most impressive Roman bath” which was drained of “250,000 litres of hot spa water as cleaners got to work” to deep-clean the pools preventing them from becoming “murky and to stop algae growing.”

Amoebic meningitis

Amoebic meningitis generally occurs when water containing active amoebae goes up the nose, and while the disease is rare it is usually fatal because it causes inflammation and eventual destruction of the brain and brain linings. This Government of Australia Department of Health report says “Amoebic meningitis is caused by a single-celled amoeba that lives in fresh water and damp soil. The amoeba,  Naegleria fowleri, can survive in soil for a long time and still reactivate when put in fresh water.” Naegleria fowleri, occurs naturally in fresh water bodies that have not been disinfected with chlorine or other water purification agents and the amoebae are most active between 28° and 40°C.

A 2010 World Health Organization report says that even when this disease is diagnosed early “5% to 10% of patients die within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. Furthermore, left untreated “up to 50% of sufferers die” and for those who do survive, “brain damage, hearing loss or a learning disability in 10% to 20% of survivors.”

Bringing this ancient killer into modern context, between 1991 and 2010 another form of meningitis included “close to one million suspected cases” and in the African Meningitis Belt this included approximately “100,000 deaths and 80,000 of these cases, including over 4000 deaths which occurred in 2009 alone.”

With this ancient disease evolving and mutating, and always being just one or two steps ahead of our immune systems, I just hope that the first thing the Bath bather did when she got out of the baths, was to have a good bath.

Top image: Roman Baths Museum at Bath in UK.                        Source: bnoragitt / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Hey Bojo come over to my place for a swim on Sunday it is going to be 28c

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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