Queries about cold baths get a cold reception

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

May 18, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Some years back many of Britain's preparatory and boarding schools for boys -- exclusive places where the future mandarins of the realm were trained in the accents and postures of the elite -- boasted of regimens designed to ensure discipline and robustness.

It was sport and more sport. It was caning for those who got out of line. And for all, regular cold baths.

The cold baths had nothing to do with hygiene. Their purpose was that commended by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts: to banish "impure thoughts" from adolescent heads.

Thus it was always believed in the more elevated social levels in Britain that distracting erotic daydreams could be washed away with a dunk in cold water.

But it didn't work. The public (really private) schools became known as places where homosexual activity was not an alien practice. Robert Graves, the English writer, recalled his school in "Goodbye to All That." He described an obsession with athletics, cold baths and an atmosphere that encouraged amorous relationships between boys:

"In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene."

The problem may have been all those cold baths.

That, at least, is what Dr. Vijay Kakkar suggests. Dr. Kakkar is a professor at St. Mary's Hospital in London. He runs the Thrombosis Research Institute of Chelsea. He is eminent in the medical world.

Recently he pronounced on the benefits of cold baths. They are an antidote to depression, he reported. They improve blood circulation. They boost the immune system. They slow the aging process. And they enliven the libido in men, by increasing the level of testosterone.

In other words, cold baths have the opposite effect that generations of British school masters thought they had, which may explain the observations of Mr. Graves and others.

One physician, Dr. Thomas Stuttaford, writing in response to Dr. Kakkar's findings, did call into doubt the benefits of low temperatures on the body.

Another, Dr. James Le Fanu, wrote that he knew all along that cold water immersion might have at least one of the effects Dr. Kakkar said it has.

But he said he preferred to "boost my testosterone levels by swimming in the sea from April onwards," a practice he admitted was discouraged by all the beer cans, plastic bags and syringes often found floating off English beaches.

The question Dr. Kakkar has posed, of course, is how the molders of upper-class gentlemen back in the old days could have got it so wrong? Dr. Kakkar is from India. He maintains that cold baths have "been recommended for centuries to improve male sex life." The British were in India for over 300 years, but apparently failed to notice.

A brief telephone survey around Britain indicated a general reluctance to even discuss the practice of cold baths in the great schools.

A Mrs. Carmen (who declined to give her first name), the secretary to the headmaster at the Westminster School in London, which sends most of its graduates on to Oxford and Cambridge, said questions about cold water baths were "not a subject we would find it profitable to pursue."

Mrs. Ruth Cook of Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire said, "We don't encourage that practice now. I'm not sure we ever did." Later she called back to say that "all the baths have been taken out. We only have showers."

The secretary of the headmaster at Eton, a Mrs. S. Marshall, also declined to have a conversation about cold baths, and eagerly deflected attention in another direction.

"They might still do it up in Gordonstoun, in Scotland."

James Thomas, up at Gordonstoun, said it was just like Eton to point the finger at somebody else, or words to that effect.

"I can't imagine that anybody still does it," that is, requires cold baths, he said. Gordonstoun never did, he averred, though he did betray a suspicious familiarity with the abandoned custom: "Even when it was true it wasn't cold baths; it was cold showers."

And what is life like in Gordonstoun these days? Well, for one thing, it's coeducational now.

Also, to avoid all temptations to a reversion to the rigors of old, as with Cheltenham, there are no bath tubs, just showers. "It's like a hotel," he said.

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