When Waters Heal

One of the odd bits of folk lore / history involves ‘healing rivers’. There are stories from all over the world of folks with various illnesses being healed by immersion in various special waters. There are health spas built on the banks of lakes, seas, and springs. There are bottled waters “for your health”. Oh, and mud baths too.


has some neat artwork in it, but also illustrates the metaphorical nature of ‘healing rivers’ in our culture.

So just WHY would all those stories, products, spas, and cultural references come to be?

We saw one partial explanation in the Take A Bath posting where the ability of Magnesium to soak into the skin was described. Many mineral baths could just be fixing mineral deficits, and those can have wide ranging medical impacts. All those mineral spas, mud baths, mineral water beverages, and such can be just fixing up some of our dietary deficits.

But could there be more? Some of the stories involve dramatic cures for things like leprosy. It’s even in the Bible.


Naaman’s Journey to Israel

4 And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5 Then the king of Aram said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” And he departed and took with him ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothes. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, “And now as this letter comes to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 And it came about when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? But consider now, and see how he is seeking a quarrel against me.”

That link goes to very great lengths to cast this, and the cure, in the light of God and the power of religion.

The Actions and Command of the Prophet

9 So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, “Behold, I thought, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper.’ 12 “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.

In these verses we have a picture of the simplicity of salvation and of the necessity of humility in finding the Lord.

Here we have a statement that one river works better than others. And why might that be?

The Cleansing of Naaman

So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

The immediate cleansing illustrates the complete and instantaneous nature of salvation. We note that he was cleansed “according to the Word.” Salvation is always and only according to the Word, and never according to our feelings or emotions or human reason (cf. Rom 16:25-26). He was cleansed instantly and completely so that his flesh became like that of a little child, but not only his flesh, but his heart also. He became a new creature by faith in the Lord of Elisha the prophet.

Despite the claims about instantaneous cleansing and connecting it to ‘salvation’ of the soul, could there be a more direct reason? Might the ‘7 times’ be spread out, as repeated immersions and repeated curative exposures to a curative agent?

Is this a ‘miracle’ or is it an ‘act of nature’? (We will avoid, for the moment, the question of “Is there any difference between miracles and acts of nature that we do not understand?”)

Curing leprosy sure does LOOK like a miracle.




Original Image

The wiki on bacteriophages has some interesting points to make on this. I think they matter…

This little buggers make bacteria sick. So are they rare or common? Do they hang around in mud and rivers? Is there any evidence for them being curative for human diseases? Well, yes.

Phages are estimated to be the most widely distributed and diverse entities in the biosphere. Phages are ubiquitous and can be found in all reservoirs populated by bacterial hosts, such as soil or the intestines of animals. One of the densest natural sources for phages and other viruses is sea water, where up to 9×10^8 virions per milliliter have been found in microbial mats at the surface, and up to 70% of marine bacteria may be infected by phages. They have been used for over 90 years as an alternative to antibiotics in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well in France. They are seen as a possible therapy against multi drug resistant strains of many bacteria.

“most widely distributed and diverse entities in the biosphere” and “ubiquitous” are pretty clear. These guys are everywhere. The note about sea water is particularly interesting. One of my ‘peculiar habits’ is that when I’m near sea water, I take just a small sip. Whenever possible, I take a swim in it; but even if it’s just a touch, I like to take a bit of a salt lick. Rubbing a bit on my face if possible. I usually feel a bit better after a visit to the ocean… I’d typically attributed it to UV killing off some skin bacteria or a general uplift from being outdoors. But with a few zillion virions / slurp, that’s a pretty good dose of bacteriophages.

It’s also interesting that the Eastern Europeans have actually been using bacteriophages as medical treatment and we’re exploring what we can learn from them.

There is a bit of history in the wiki. Not much though. I think there is a lot of room for more learning to be done here.

Since ancient times, there have been documented reports of river waters having the ability to cure infectious diseases, such as leprosy. In 1896, Ernest Hanbury Hankin reported that something in the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India had marked antibacterial action against cholera and could pass through a very fine porcelain filter. In 1915, British bacteriologist Frederick Twort, superintendent of the Brown Institution of London, discovered a small agent that infected and killed bacteria. He believed that the agent must be one of the following:

a stage in the life cycle of the bacteria;
an enzyme produced by the bacteria themselves; or
a virus that grew on and destroyed the bacteria.

Twort’s work was interrupted by the onset of World War I and shortage of funding.

Independently, French-Canadian microbiologist Félix d’Hérelle, working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, announced on September 3, 1917, that he had discovered “an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus”. For d’Hérelle, there was no question as to the nature of his discovery: “In a flash I had understood: what caused my clear spots was in fact an invisible microbe … a virus parasitic on bacteria.” D’Hérelle called the virus a bacteriophage or bacteria-eater (from the Greek phagein meaning to eat). He also recorded a dramatic account of a man suffering from dysentery who was restored to good health by the bacteriophages.

In 1923, the Eliava Institute was opened in Tbilisi, Georgia, to research this new science and put it into practice.

In 1969 Max Delbrück, Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luria were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discoveries of the replication of viruses and their genetic structure.

So with a barely explored part of the biological world, that has ‘ubiquitous’ distribution, we could have trillions and trillions of variations to play with. This is a ‘target rich environment’, IMHO, and those variations in type could easily explain why one river would would cure a disease and another not. The other implied quirk is that for a decent load of bacteriophages to exist, you need some bacteria… So all those times swimming in wild rivers, ponds, and seas; wading in muck, and sometimes having mud fights with the bacterial mat layer on top of the muck just might have been doing me some good… It is the sterilized chlorinated swimming pool that has little potential to be a ‘healing river’ of bacteriophages.

There is also a page on phage therapy that talks at some length about what is being done to use these little buggers to advantage. Here is the ‘history’ portion from that page:

Following the discovery of bacteriophages by Frederick Twort and Felix d’Hérelle in 1915 and 1917, phage therapy was immediately recognized by many to be a key way forward for the eradication of bacterial infections. A Georgian, George Eliava, was making similar discoveries. He traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris where he met d’Hérelle, and in 1923 he founded the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, devoted to the development of phage therapy.

In neighbouring countries including Russia, extensive research and development soon began in this field. In the USA during the 1940s commercialization of phage therapy was undertaken by the large pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly.

Whilst knowledge was being accumulated regarding the biology of phages and how to use phage cocktails correctly, early uses of phage therapy were often unreliable. When antibiotics were discovered in 1941 and marketed widely in the USA and Europe, Western scientists mostly lost interest in further use and study of phage therapy for some time.

Isolated from Western advances in antibiotic production in the 1940s, Russian scientists continued to develop already successful phage therapy to treat the wounds of soldiers in field hospitals. During World War II, the Soviet Union used bacteriophages to treat many soldiers infected with various bacterial diseases e.g. dysentery and gangrene. Russian researchers continued to develop and to refine their treatments and to publish their research and results. However, due to the scientific barriers of the Cold War, this knowledge was not translated and did not proliferate across the world. A summary of these publications has been published recently in English in “A Literature Review of the Practical Application of Bacteriophage Research”

There is an extensive library and research center at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia. Phage therapy is today a widespread form of treatment in that region. For 80 years Georgian doctors have been treating local people, including babies and newborns, with phages.

As a result of the development of antibiotic resistance since the 1950s and an advancement of scientific knowledge, there has been renewed interest worldwide in the ability of phage therapy to eradicate bacterial infections and chronic polymicrobial biofilm, along with other strategies.

Phages have been investigated as a potential means to eliminate pathogens like Campylobacter in raw food and Listeria in fresh food or to reduce food spoilage bacteria. In agricultural practice phages were used to fight pathogens like Campylobacter, Escherichia and Salmonella in farm animals, Lactococcus and Vibrio pathogens in fish from aquaculture and Erwinia and Xanthomonas in plants of agricultural importance. The oldest use was, however, in human medicine. Phages have been used against diarrheal diseases caused by E. coli, Shigella or Vibrio and against wound infections caused by facultative pathogens of the skin like staphylococci and streptococci. Recently the phage therapy approach has been applied to systemic and even intracellular infections and the addition of non-replicating phage and isolated phage enzymes like lysins to the antimicrobial arsenal. However, actual proof for the efficiency of these phage approaches in the field or the hospital is not available.

Some of the interest in the West can be traced back to 1994, when Soothill demonstrated (in an animal model) that the use of phages could improve the success of skin grafts by reducing the underlying Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection. Recent studies have provided additional support for these findings in the model system.

Although not “phage therapy” in the original sense, the use of phages as delivery mechanisms for traditional antibiotics constitutes another possible therapeutic use. The use of phages to deliver antitumor agents has also been described in preliminary in vitro experiments for cells in tissue culture.

One of the things that caught my eye was the recent approval of a phage treatment for Listeria. Listeria has been around as a food issue for a very long time. As a child, one local story was about a family just outside of town. These were very poor folks, making a living off a scrap of land and some odd jobs. The Dad had saved and scraped and bought a cow. He could now provide fresh milk to his family. In those days a cow as a major expenditure. Like buying a new car today. A government official of some kind came to town and tested the local cows. His was found to be harboring listeria and was ordered destroyed. It was a bit of a local fuss for a while. How was it ‘fair’ or ‘just’ for the government to take his animal and give no compensation? At the same time, Listeria is a terrible disease. Never mind that his family had no sickness (likely having become immune), there was a risk to others who might be exposed. The cow was killed. The town was a bit angry and frustrated. Life moved on. That was 50 years ago.

Now we have listeria in the news on crops. If you look up that bacteria, you find it is a fairly ubiquitous thing too.


Listeria can be found in soil, which can lead to vegetable contamination. Animals can also be carriers. Listeria has been found in uncooked meats, uncooked vegetables, fruit such as cantaloupes, unpasteurized milk, foods made from unpasteurized milk, and processed foods. Pasteurization and sufficient cooking kill Listeria; however, contamination may occur after cooking and before packaging. For example, meat-processing plants producing ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs and deli meats, must follow extensive sanitation policies and procedures to prevent Listeria contamination. Listeria monocytogenes is commonly found in soil, stream water, sewage, plants, and food. Listeria are responsible for listeriosis, a rare but potentially lethal food-borne infection. The case fatality rate for those with a severe form of infection may approach 25%. (Salmonella, in comparison, has a mortality rate estimated at less than 1%). Although Listeria monocytogenes has low infectivity, it is hardy and can grow in temperatures from 4 °C (39.2 °F) (the temperature of a refrigerator), to 37 °C (98.6 °F), (the body’s internal temperature). Listeriosis is a serious illness, and the disease may manifest as meningitis, or affect newborns due to its ability to penetrate the endothelial layer of the placenta.

So now we see that this isn’t just a pathogen that was in that family cow as a rare anomaly, it was, and is, a very common environmental contaminant. It also isn’t some extremely rare and horrible infection of cantaloups caused by poor farming practices. It is just one of hundreds of bacteria that share some of our world with us. Mostly infecting folks with compromised immunity in some way. Killing that cow, and the present mass hysteria over salads, say more about our lack of understanding about how common pathogens are in the environment than they do about ‘good farming practices’.

Yes, we need to be ‘clean’ about food growing, shipping, preparation, and consumption; but not paranoid about it.

But, speaking of paranoia, I have to wonder if the present focus on listeria has any connection at all to a marketing effort of sorts for the recently approved treatment:

In August, 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved LMP-102 (now ListShield) as a food additive to target and kill Listeria monocytogenes. LMP-102 was approved for treating ready-to-eat (RTE) poultry and meat products. In October of that year, following the food additive approval of LMP-102 by Intralytix, the FDA approved a product by EBI using bacteriophages on cheese to kill the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, giving them GRAS status (Generally Recognized As Safe). In July 2007, the same bacteriophages were approved for use on all food products. There is on going research in the field of food safety to see if lytic phage are a viable option to control other food-borne pathogens in various food products.

There has been an odd tendency for a disease, product, or other ‘issue’ to become a media darling shortly after someone has developed a new product. From “low flush toilets” to banning light bulbs, there’s nothing like a government mandate to make you more profitable. So, as a purely speculative point, I’ve got to wonder if all the media coverage of a bit of listeria has anything to do with someone pushing the ‘cure’. Listeria has been around forever, so why now, just a few years after a new treatment hits the market, is it ‘in the news’ so much? Watch this space… If their is a sudden ‘movement’ to mandate the treatment of all produce, just think what that’s worth. No, no proof of anything. Just an interesting little ‘dig here’ on how private enterprise interacts with media and the government.

In Conclusion

It’s also somewhat interesting to think that if there are requirements for ‘cleaner water’ on irrigation, that could actually increase the pathogen risks as the bacteriophage load is reduced in the ‘cleaner’ water. Do I have any confidence at all that a government agency can ‘get it right’ with this complicated and subtle a set of interactions? Nope.

There are great potentials here. We can start making designer phages for all sorts of things. But, can we find ways to get the benefits while controlling the urges of greed and avarice? Can we avoid making a ‘superphage’ that kills off some species of beneficial bacteria? One can only hope.

Heck, we might even have a resurgence in folks swimming in rivers. I know I’m going to be letting go of the ‘minor worry’ about swimming in less than chlorinated water that I picked up from living with urban paranoids. (It didn’t stop me from river swimming, just gave me a moment to think “Oh, and it’s got stuff living in it so isn’t clean”… and now that will be “… and has phages in it that might cure some stuff too.” )

In the end, we are tied to our evolutionary context, and that context included contact with dirt, mud, and river waters. We can isolate ourselves from that past to some extent, but perhaps with a cost. While I’m not going to just jump in any old river in the world (there ARE nasties in some of them, from ‘river blindness’ to carnivorous fishes, so you need to know your local waters first) I’m also going to be much more willing to join the locals in a local swimming hole. Oh, and taking that sip of ocean water from time to time.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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12 Responses to When Waters Heal

  1. Baa Humbug says:

    Thankyou for taking the time to post this.
    It was fascinating, informative and thought provoking.
    I’m guessing I’ll be keeping one eye on govt edicts about food safety from now on.

    p.s. Yes good old sea water. Great for the skin, terrific for your hair. My dogs (German Shepherds) used to end up with beautiful clean shiny coats after a dip in sea water.

  2. P.G. Sharrow says:

    @ E.M. Your story reminds me that back in ” 52 or 53″ my family acquired a milk cow for our 5 acre california ” funny farm” and I was assigned as cow milker. But father would NEVER allow a “government agent” on the place, as if they even knew of our existance. Fresh milk, butter and cheese. My father said “that cow was worth a hundred dollars a month to his family of 6″. Of course I worked for free. ;-) Don’t remember of any food poisioning from the fresh cow’s milk, cheese or butter. Do remember being ” married to a cow” 7 days a week, twice a day, 365 days a year, for ten years.

    Sea water is a soup of things that eat bacteria. I know of many cases of skin problems of many years being cleared up by a dip or two in sea water or a treatment in a salty mud bath. pg

  3. Pascvaks says:

    (The pic looks like something NASA dreamed up; their Nano-sized lunar lander… it does look metalic.. there are too few Chiefio’s in the world, thanks for being and sharing.)

    From water miracles to cow guts to veggies to dirt. And here I’d thought penecillin was from a bacteria that didn’t like other bacteria and made fuz on some soft cheeses.

    All the parts blend into a harmonious whole, an equalibrium, eventually, if harmony is disrupted and if/when too much of something gets an upper hand, something’s going to give (change) –and often not for the better for a living “host” if it happens to be part of, or too near, the disharmony. As we discover more of the secrets of the universe, we tend to over react, assume too much, and disrupt the balance, and must pay the price, until a new equalibrium is achieved. (Everything’s, eventually, for a little while, a nice peaceful timebomb, peacefully waiting for the next fool to walk by and upset tranquility; where did “The Eagle” land?)

    PS: Thanks “again” EM! You rock! (;-)

  4. Jason Calley says:

    Great post! Phage therapy is one of the more interesting “forgotten” technologies of the last century. Sad that the development of antibiotics did so much to stunt the further development of phage usage. I read a popular book on the subject http://www.amazon.com/Viruses-vs-Superbugs-Solution-Antibiotics/dp/0230551939/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318814239&sr=1-2 some years ago and was greatly impressed.

    At one point the author describes the procedure by which some scientists found a virus to attack a specific bacteria. They grew a bacterial culture then sprinkled it with water taken from Boston Harbor. They figured that Boston Harbor must have every virus known — and probably some unknown as well! Sure enough, the bacterial culture soon began to show spots where the bacteria were being killed off by proliferating viruses, and the scientists were able to use a sample from those spots to culture the virus they needed.

  5. adolfogiurfa says:

    @E.M.It’s really surprising your ability to find new and interesting themes. Now we need a bacteriophages farm to make them available for curing diseases.

  6. Pascvaks says:

    Isn’t it a bit strange how the biggest pill-popping country in the world has a rather low, legal pill-popper manufacturing base. Wonder how many pills we pop that are made in countries we wouldn’t trust to drink the water in? I’ll bet that the Ganges isn’t the river it used to be, but then what is these days? Seven Billion carbon units! And that doesn’t include all our other little relatives that are scurrying around the place. Ever get the impression we are all little straws on a big camel’s back?

  7. E.M.Smith says:


    I just see some loose thread somewhere and follow it, that’s all. See the phrase “healing rivers” and wonder where it came from. See the word “bacteriophage” and wonder about the etymology of it. Many such thread pulls give a bit of interesting stuff, but not enough for a posting. Some are more rich… and result in a ‘ah-ha” moment, and a posting. Sometimes it’s a bundle of threads that, once pulled, need a bit of re-weaving to see what they say. Those I like the most. In this case it was just looking up Listeria symptoms to know what they were (as I’d eaten something that gave me a bit of ‘looseness’…) and finding an interesting connection to bacteriophage… Then connected that to the Biblical stories and healing rivers. It’s just what I do…

    See Jason’s comment just above yours. All it takes is a single Petri Dish with a culture of bacteria in it and some “dirty water”. Then you sample the clear zone and use it in bottle cultures of bugs to mass produce. The whole thing would fit in a small kitchen. While getting Government Approval takes a multi-billion dollar company, any guy in a hut in Africa could do the basic discovery and growout. (Don’t need refrigeration or electricity, just a warm plate, some bottles, and a way to sterilize the grow media prior to inoculation). Having a full kitchen with electricity would be more convenient, but that’s about it.


    Thanks! Glad you liked it.


    Yeah. We’re regulating our industries out of existence with Uber-Safety and then accept imports of things from places where lead paint is normal, fake ingredients are the norm, and the water is typically toxic. You can regulate, or you can have ‘free trade”, but you can’t have both. Yet the World Trade Organization is based on the notion that you can. Thus the load of economic conflicts between “Us and Them”. We regulate for “dolphin safe tuna” and they get the WTO to set it aside. So our fishermen must follow our law, but foreign sources do not. Excess costs drive our guys out of business, and we get foreign tuna and fewer dolphins with fewer jobs. (As a vastly simplified semi-fictional example. But similar stories can be told for chemical manufacture – see DOW in India – and steel and …)

    So we hyper-regulate drug production and, quelle surprise, Dr. Reddy in India and Teva in Israel have dramatic growth in sales and production… Oh, and “medical tourism” too…

    And yes, we’re balanced on the edge of catastrophe. Life always has been…

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    I wonder some times if my urge to leap into the ocean is a genetic trait… Long family history of being sailors and near the sea. Grandfather and Great Grandfather in HM Merchant Marine.

    FWIW, after that event with the cow, the next time Mr. Helpful Govt Agent came to town there were a whole lot of cows moved to ‘other pastures’ for a while… In my home town, you could not drive from the edge of town to the center 2 miles away without folks knowing… Some folks were just not willing to risk a $2000 asset to government confiscation and destruction.

    @Baa Humbug:

    You are most welcome. I do the ‘research’ in any case (it’s just how I’m wired, I can’t let the thread go un-pulled). The actual posting is about a 1 to 2 hour ‘add’ for most things. Figure it will save someone far more than that in ‘search time’ if I just bundle it up and post it. And it’s fun ;-)

    Interesting confirmation about the dogs coats. Many dogs really love a dip in the ocean… Hmmm….

  8. Adrian Camp says:

    Chiefio, Pascvaks, pharma is regulated everywhere. The FDA make the rules and they are enforced in the countries where the drugs are made. A friend of mine is an auditor of processes. He travels the world checking the factories. Where did you get those input ingredients? What batch is in what batch of drugs? Where are your records for the last so many years? Records, backups, all the usual things, and you can be shut down if you screw up.

    (Not trying to make a point, just happened to know that.)

  9. Adrian Camp says:

    Oh, Teva was a client of mine, they showed me round their Haarlem factory. Nothing touched by hand, entirely mechanised/computerised factory. Yes the jobs are shipped out of the USA (where big pharma is universally condemned as evil while keeping most of the population alive) but the work doesn’t suffer.

  10. E.M.Smith says:

    @Adrian Camp:

    I have no doubt that the FDA demands the same nominal quality from China as from New York… but… We also demanded no lead on kids toys… Oh, and the FDA regulates food, too, yet a fair amount of “special oils” run through China are bogus. Don’t get me started on Olive Oil…

    Regulation from the other side of the globe is a touch more harder, and when paperwork is often fraudulent in some locations, the usual ‘paperwork review’ just doesn’t have the same meaning.

    I’d have no problem with Teva, FWIW. The Israel government and population moral ethics are are pretty good.

  11. wayne says:

    E.M., very interesting article! Having majored in physiology before quickly moving into computers years ago, this article strikes a bell that I have pondered on my entire life.

    Have you ever noticed that people who live pristine, daily-antiseptic-sprayed lives, always seem to be sick while I, who lives a not so perfectly clean environment (usually dust only every couple of months and never spray antiseptic sprays about my home, have not really been sick in the last twenty years but an occasional cold.

    Could these factors be tied in some manner. Are phages easily destroyed therefore unable to perform their purpose of killing off harmful bacteria? Or, are these antiseptic sprays killing the weak bacteria only to leave the stronger to then multiply into stronger, more resistant strains. Kind of like creating super-germs right there in your home while thinking you are being really ‘clean’.

    Have always wondered this as the many years have gone by and I noticed this pattern.

    Once again, enjoyed your interesting article.

  12. Julian Braggins says:

    Some years back, when a visiting Indian PM was reported to indulge in early morning ‘urine therapy’ my curiosity was aroused enough to research it. While it appeared to have some passionate advocates, there didn’t seem to be any underlying mechanism for the results.
    Then another research lead came across bacteriophages and it seemed to fit the bill, urine being in the main sterile, except for viruses. I did post a letter to Nexus magazine, who had just run an article on Urine Therapy, with the idea, but apart from an e-mail from a french Dr. researching it there seemed little interest. Another of life’s little mysteries as yet unsolved, or perhaps, unpublicized.

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