History of Naturopathy in Europe

This history of naturopathy in Europe is based on a treasure of an old book by a famous Finnish botany and natural medicine researcher and lecturer, Prof. Toivo Rautavaara. The book is called (translated) "The Way Nature Heals" and includes within it a brief record of the history of European natural healthcare, spanning from Hippocrates in 460 BC to the publication date of the book, 1951. I have created an even shorter version of this fascinating account of Rautavaara's book in this article (translated from Finnish).

Definition of naturopathy from the British College of Osteopathic Medicine website:

"Naturopathy, frequently called naturopathic medicine, is a system of treatment and healthcare that supports the body's innate ability to heal itself through nutrition, exercise and life-style advice. It is a holistic system that believes that good health is not the same as absence of disease [...] Naturopathy may be beneficial for a wide range of chronic conditions as well as a general practice for living well. It draws on a wide range of therapeutic disciplines - known as 'modalities' - and may help to avoid surgery and excessive medication." (www.bcom.ac.uk)

Hippocrates 460 BC, Antique Medicine

  • The Greek so-called 'Father of Modern Medicine'.
  • In many countries doctors still swear an "Hippocratic Oath" upon graduation from medical school.
  • Hippocrates and his disciples produced plenty of literature on medicine.
  • Hippocrates' most important principle: The purpose of a doctor is to awaken the natural healing powers in the patient.
  • Curing disease was based on dietetics, which had a wider meaning than today. Diaita meant healing diet as well as healthy lifestyle.

Note that although it is not mentioned in Toivo Rautavaara's book, there is good reason to believe that Hippocrates was trained by the Ancient Egyptian medical system.

Asklepiades 1st Century BC

  • Greek Asklepiades was one of the most famous doctors in the Roman Empire
  • He marketed himself as someone who healed safely, quickly and pleasantly and as someone who didn't prescribe diarrhea and vomit-inducing strong medicines, as most Roman doctors did.
  • He recommended fasting, quitting wine drinking, massage, exercise, baths and other hydrotherapies, as well as thermal therapies.
  • Other Greek doctors were held in high regard in Rome because of Asklepiades. One of these was the spiritual doctor of Caesar Augustus, named Musa. Musa healed the Caesar by putting him on a long-term lettuce diet. Lettuce those days was more powerful than modern lettuce, however.

Galenos, 129-199 AD

  • The last of the great doctors of Antiquity, Galenos was born in Pergamo, studied in Alexandria and practised medicine mainly in Rome.
  • Produced plenty of literature and based his methods mostly on Hippocrates' teachings.
  • He didn't add much that was new to the Science of Medicine.
  • His books were some of the latest preserved medical books after the fall of the Roman Empire and thus were used as a basis of medicine for hundreds of years afterwards.

Avicenna 980-1037 AD, Arabian Medicine

  • Muhammed was born in 570 AD and Islam spread to Asia, Africa and parts of Europe.
  • Many sciences were revived through Islam.
  • Avicenna was the most famous of the Islamic doctors.
  • He was also known as: Ali Hussein ibn Abdulla ibn Sina.
  • He was a prodigy, who knew the Koran by heart by the age of 10 years old, studied philosophy, law, mathematics, and at the age of 16, began studying medicine.
  • He soon became a famous doctor and wrote a 20-part Encyclopedia at the age of 21 and later a five-part book on the basics of Medicine.
  • He was originally from Buhara, which today is in Uzbekistan.
  • He created a vast legacy of medical teachings, which included natural cures.
  • The attack of the Mongols broke up the Arabic Empire.

(Update: View an Iranian raw foodist's criticism on Avicenna's teachings in this interview.)

Middle Ages

  • During the Middle Ages the medical progress stopped.
  • Medicine was mainly practised in monasteries and convents, where herbal medicines were grown.
  • Salerno Medical School in Italy was a famous.

Paracelsus 1494-1541, Renaissance Medicine

  • Paracelsus, also called: Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was a Swiss-German Renaissance Physician.
  • He discarded much of the old medical teachings and highlighted the importance of natural healing.
  • He spoke of the 'internal doctor', a life force which should be supported.
  • He used chemistry to study plants and believed that God had created a healing plant for each disease.
  • Paracelsus endeavoured to find the 'quintessence' (quinta essentia) of each plant.

Carolus Linnaeus 1707-78

  • Also known as Carl von Linne after his ennoblement.
  • He was a Professor of Medicine at the Uppsala University in Sweden.
  • World-renowned botanist.
  • His lectures, especially those of dietetics, were popular within practitioners of different academic fields worldwide. The lectures were in Latin.
  • He collected information about healthy lifestyle, diseases, and other health-related matters from sources around the world.
  • His definition of health was: "A totality where no function of the body can be felt. Agile body. Free breathing. Brilliant face. General warmth. Strong, steady pulse. Peaceful sleep. Tranquil mind." (loosely translated)
  • His advice to newly graduated doctors was: Ensure that you have clean hands and clean conscience.
  • "Clavis Medicinalis" (Key to Medicine), Linne's book described how to cure illnesses and provided brief descriptions of the effects of different herbs.

Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, 1762-1836

  • Was a Doctor to Goethe, Schiller, Herder and other famous men in his hometown of Weimar, Germany, already at a young age.
  • With Goethe's help he became a Professor of Medicine at the age of 31 in University of Jena, Germany.
  • The Tsar of Russia asked Hufeland to be his spiritual healer but he ended up in Berlin as a medical doctor to the King of Prussia and Senior Physician at the Charite Hospital.
  • He published literature to both: other doctors and the mainstream audience. He was able to combine folk medical wisdom with the latest discoveries of science.
  • Peace of mind, happiness and satisfaction were the most important aspects of health and well-being, according to Hufeland.
  • Sensible eating and drinking, as well as other healthy lifestyle measures, would support the life energy that overcome diseases. Faulty diet could kill more people than diseases themselves.
  • "Macrobiotics, the Skill to Lengthen Human Life", his book, was translated to many languages, including Chinese.
  • Once medicine as a field became divided into different fields of speciality, Hufeland's work was not valued anymore.
  • Later, the name 'Macrobiotics' has become attributed to the dietary school of Japanese Ohsawa and these teachings have nothing to do with Hufeland's work.
  • The later editions of Hufeland's 'Makrobiotik' book may be a useful read for researchers of geriatrics and old-age related illnesses.

The Development of Modern Medicine, 19th Century

  • As the Science of Medicine developed in the 19th Century, many natural healing methods were discarded as unscientific.
  • Within laymen there were still very gifted healers, who continued to develop natural healing methods despite the opposition from doctors.
  • Eventually many doctors and scientists became interested in these methods, and Physiotherapy, in the larger meaning of the word, became a specialist field of Medicine.

Vinzenz Priessnitz 1799-1851, Hydrotherapy

  • Priessnitz has been called the progenitor of modern European naturopathy.
  • He grew up on a farm in Austria and observed how a deer every day bathed its wounded leg in a river.
  • He hurt his finger and managed to heal it by using a cold water cure.
  • Soon the 15-year old boy was healing many complaints of the people of his village.
  • Later he had a serious accident, being ran over by a horse carriage, and the doctors gave him no hope of recovery. But once he regained consciousness, he pressed his broken ribs against a chair to get them roughly in the right places, and asked his mother for a towel dampened in cold water. He positioned the towel on his chest and covered it up with dry woollen clothes. This was the invention of the Priessnitz compresses, which millions of people have since used. He kept changing the towel twice a day and after one year was recovered.
  • News of the miraculous healing spread and Priessnitz started receiving an ever-increasing number of patients. He used different cold-water cures to help people and healed, for example, gout. He didn't ask for pay.
  • The local doctors took Priessnitz to court for 'Quackery'.
  • The police suspected the sponge he used to be a magical object and confiscated it. Priessnitz started using a bare hand to ladle cold water on people, which proved to be an even more effective method.
  • Priessnitz established a sanatorium in his hometown Grafenberg, which later came to be known as the Priessnitz Sanatorium. His work became so well-respected that even doctors, eventually, came to learn from him.
  • The healing methods he used, and which have been adopted by the modern natural healthcare, were:
    1. Hydrotherapy: baths, wraps, underwater massage, natural stream showers, etc.
    2. Exercise: Walking, breathing exercises, wood chopping, etc.
    3. Light and air therapy: Walking barefoot with thin clothing, air baths in a room with open windows.
    4. Simple diet: wholemeal bread, vegetables, fruit, wild strawberries, no soups, a little bit of meat, no hot foods.
    5. Morally sound lifestyle was promoted as well.
  • After Priessnitz' death the sanatorium continued to operate, healing successfully, for example, cholera.
  • Many societies and sanatoriums were later established based on Priessnitz' teachings: approximately 100 sanatoriums in Germany and Austria, and some also in Russia, Poland, Hungary, France, Switzerland, England and the USA.
history of naturopathy in europe, grafenberg sanatorium priessnitz
Grafenberg Sanatorium, instead of exercising, the patients chopped wood outdoors.

Johann Schroth 1798-1856

  • Johann Schroth was also a farmer without formal education and lived in Germany.
  • He noticed that animals instinctively ate less when ill, and even drank less as well.
  • His patients ate a diet of very little food, mainly wholemeal porridge and old buns. Two days per week were 'dry days', when drinking was limited as much as possible. Two days per week were 'big drinking days', when one litre of mild wine was sipped through the day. On the rest of the weekdays only about half a litre of wine was drunken. The idea was to remove waste from tissues, which moved into the blood on 'dry days' and were flushed out of the body on 'drinking days'.
  • Another healing method was a cold damp wrap around the whole body, which in turn was wrapped in wool. The patient would sweat and secrete waste through the pores.
  • In Oberstaufen, Germany, there is a large therapy center based on Schroth's legacy. They have replaced the wine with juices and herbal teas and instead of porridge, low-calorie vegetable soups are eaten. The buns are replaced with crisp bread and flax seed crackers, which are eaten with fresh vegetables. The colon is kept healthy by eating soaked, dried plums and apricots. This has proven to be an effective method for weight loss and it also prevents high blood pressure, gout, calcification of the arteries, diabetes, kidney stones and lowers cholesterol in blood. Also heart diseases, edema, rheumatism, allergies and chronic inflammation, such as sinus infections, catarrh of the lungs and urine infections have been helped.

Sebastian Kneipp 1821-1897

  • Priessnitz has generally been forgotten and Kneipp is more often remembered for treating people with hydrotherapy.
  • He had a serious lung infection and the doctors gave him no hope of recovery. He started reading Johann Hahn's book on hydrotherapy and began to treat himself. He ran 2-3 times per week the distance of one hour to the Danube river, and jumped into the cold water, running back home afterwards. He gradually recovered from his disease.
  • He graduated as a Priest and began to heal people in a convent.
  • He published a book entitled: 'Mein Wasserkur' (My Water Cure) at the age of 65. The book became well-known and Kneipp therapy center and Medical School were founded in Worishofen.
  • Official Kneipp therapy centers were opened in many places, including traditional bath houses.
  • The famous Priessnitz compress was renamed as Kneipp compress.
  • Kneipp treatments, such as walking barefoot in damp grass, air baths, hydrotherapy, exercise, sweating, etc. were all described in Priessnitz' book: 'Curmethode' (Cure Methods).
  • Later the modernised Kneipp therapy centers adopted additional methods of healing, i.e. massage, hot wraps, sauna, herbal remedies and the vegetarian diet.

Moritz Schreber 1808-1861

  • Moritz Schreber studied Priessnitz's therapies.
  • He suggested gymnastics to be taught in schools with no success. He did manage to inspire basic hygiene and 'nature' teaching to schools, however.
  • Among doctors he was well-known for developing exercises for back problems.
  • In the mainstream he was known for promoting communal gardening, especially for children. Thousands of communal gardens were established, carrying his name: 'Schrebergarten'.

Louis Kuhne

  • Louis Kuhne published a book around 1850s with a long name of: "The New Science of Healing, or the Doctrine of the Oneness of All Diseases, forming a basis of a Uniform Method of Cure, without medicines and without operations."
  • His book was based on his own reasoning, observations and experiences. His methods proved excellent and 'Kuhnism' spread in Europe as a folk cure. But his theories have been left out of the history of both medical and naturopathic literature, and labelled pseudo-scientific.
  • Kuhn thought that the whole human body was fermenting, which generated expanding gases, which tried to escape through breath, kidneys, and especially through the skin. If they were not efficiently eliminated by sweating, for example, the tissues and organs became subject to pressure. This created heat and fever, and subsequently bacteria were born from fermentation. The principal cause of disease, according to Kuhne, were byproducts of fermentation and bacteria. Kuhne thought that contagious diseases spread due to fermentation - not bacteria - from human to human in a similar way as yeast or sour-dough spreads. These imaginary theories were subsequently proven wrong.
  • Though his theory was lacking, his healing methods proved efficient: steam baths; sweating; sitting baths ('Kuhne baths) in cold water, 12-14 degrees Celsius, followed by exercise to warm up.
  • He also had more strange, less popular healing methods.

Edward Hooker Dewey, 1840-1904

  • Hippocrates, Galenos and Avicenna recommended fasting. Buddha and Jesus performed long fasts and Christians also practised fasts of limited length. Eventually fasting was forgotten, however, as medical science had different interests.
  • Dr. E. H. Davey rediscovered fasting in America before Europe.
  • He treated a girl with typhoid fever, who had no appetite, with 35 days of fasting, after which the girl's appetite recovered and she was healed.
  • During diphtheria-epidemic, he helped his own daughter heal by fasting.
  • He also developed a method of morning-fasting.

Alexander Haig

  • An English Doctor, Alexander Haig suffered from excruciating headaches until 1882, when he stopped eating meat and gradually became a vegetarian.
  • He researched human metabolism and came to a conclusion that uric acid, which was acquired by the body from meat, caused diseases.
  • With an alkaline diet he managed to eliminate uric acid from the blood and the body's waste product stores.
  • He claimed that most diseases were due to uric acid.
  • He healed a migraine in 48 hours by fasting, only the eating of fruit was allowed.
  • Warmth, sweating, and massages enhanced the healing effect of a vegetarian diet.
  • He believed that different skin conditions, rheumatism, gout, gallstones, and appendicitis could be healed by a diet which created no uric acid.
  • Are Waerland used Haig's teachings as a basis to formulate his own healing programme.

Heinrich Lahmann, 1860-1905

  • Lahmann used all natural healing methodologies and established a treatment center, 'Weisser Hirsch' near Dresden, Germany. The center grew influential and a research laboratory was built on the site as well.
  • Swedish Doctor Ragnar Berg worked in the laboratory, researching especially minerals in nutrition and the pH balance of the body.

Ernst Schweninger, 1850-1924

  • Schweninger became a Doctor when only 20-years old.
  • He developed his own natural healing methods, which he used to heal Otto von Bismarck's, the Prussian Chancellor's, alcoholic son.
  • He also healed Chancellor Bismarck himself, who had been given only half a year to live by other doctors. He lost weight, his painful liver disease was cured and his gallbladder recovered as well.
  • Schweninger convinced Bismarck to realize laws regarding social healthcare, health insurance, unemployment and pension, which were the first of their kind in the world.
  • He worked in Berlin-Lichterfeld hospital as a doctor, where he used his own methodology despite the severe criticism he received from other doctors: Operations only when absolutely necessary, as little medication as possible, diets and physical treatments, sun, air, hot and cold hydrotherapies, exercise, rest, 'soul treatment', clean environment ('no hospital smell') and fresh air. Each patient's room had a door open directly into a garden. Many of the patients were prescribed a vegetarian diet.
  • The yearly hospital publications showed surprising reports of difficult diseases being cured by simple natural means, for example: diphtheria, typhoid and syphilis.

Alfred Brauchle, 1898-1964

  • Brauchle was a student of Schonenberger and a Senior Doctor at a Priessnitz-hospital. He was invited to Dresden to become a Senior Doctor of the Natural Medicine Ward.
  • He has written various books on Natural Medicine for both, doctors and laymen.

Max Bircher-Benner, 1867-1939, Raw Food Diet

  • Swiss doctor, Max Oskar Bircher-Benner realized that sleeping pills didn't cure insomnia. His horse riding teacher suggested exercise and cold wraps, which helped.
  • When he received difficult-to-heal patients, one vegetarian student friend suggested a raw food diet, which he found to have an unexpectedly positive effect.
  • He learned about the importance of a vegetarian diet and air baths from Dr. Lahmann in Dresden.
  • From Professor Winternitz in Vienna he learned about hydrotherapy, and from professor Forel in Zurich the importance of soul healing.
  • In 1897 he founded a private hospital in Zurich, which quickly became world-famous.
  • The nutritional value of food is determined not only by its calorific (thermal) value but also by its 'light value'. Living food has the energy of the sun stored within it. When cooking, this light energy disappears and all that is left is dead 'chemical' energy. This was the theory explained in a book he published in 1903. Since then both physics and physiology have supported this theory. Vitamins and other powerful substances have been found in plants, which either get destroyed or altered by cooking.
  • Bircher-Benner concluded that most people were only semi-healthy, and this could be confirmed by determining uric acid levels in blood and by microscopic examination of capillary veins.
  • Bircher-Benner and his assistants have published a series of books regarding healing different diseases by natural methods.

Carl Ottosen

  • Dr. Carl Ottosen established a bath-house and therapy center 'Skodsborg' in Denmark in 1898.
  • He was a natural health pioneer who studied to become a doctor in Stockholm and Copenhagen, and travelled to Germany, Austria and the USA therapy centers to learn about natural healing.
history of naturopathy in europe, grafenberg sanatorium priessnitz
Patients shovelling snow at the Grafenberg Sanatorium.

Wilhelm A Wander

  • Wrote a huge book entitled: 'Natural Medicine. Homebook for the Healthy and the Ill' in 1939. (Naturmedizin. Hausbuch fur Gesunde und Kranke)
  • German doctor who moved to the USA and became well-known for hydrotherapy and other natural healing methods. He also gained reputation in Spain and eventually returned to Germany.
  • He used Kuhne's 'sitting baths' with success but had to rename them as 'Lifebaths' because of Kuhn's bad reputation among medical circles.

Are Waerland, 1876-1955

  • Birth name: Paul Fager. Was born and studied in Finland, moved to England for 15 years, and then to Sweden.
  • He believed that diseases are mostly due to bad lifestyles and he developed the Waerland Diet and Waerland Clinics. He published many books and other writings; and was a popular speaker and a lecturer.
  • The following seven points were his most important teachings:

    1. Build healthy cells by a lacto-vegetarian raw food diet (in addition to raw vegetables wholemeal grains and dairy were recommended).
    2. Don't damage vegetables with fire. When boiling food some of the minerals and trace elements are lost and almost half of the nutrients, 1/3-4/5 of sugars, 1/7-4/5 of starches, and 1/5-1/2 of proteins are lost.
    3. Support the functioning of organs by drinking enough fluids. The body loses approximately 3-litres of water per day, and this amount has to be replaced. We receive about 0.5l of fluids per day from eating raw food.
    4. Ideally we should have 3-4 bowel movements per day to remove waste products from the body. We should also remove these by sweating, either by exercising or walking outdoors in fresh air or by taking a sauna (only if the heart is healthy).
    5. Don't take too many enemas because your colon may get sluggish. Use them only in special cases, for example when fasting, but never for longer than one month.
    6. Ensure that your blood is as well oxygenated as possible: sleep with windows opened, spend time outdoors, avoid smoke and bad quality air.
    7. Cultivate a positive, light-hearted attitude to life and learn to control your thoughts and emotions so that you can eliminate negative, life-hindering emotions and thoughts and create an internal world for yourself of peace, harmony and happiness.

Natural Medicine in Germany

In Germany natural medicine has been more integrated into mainstream healthcare and medicine than in the rest of Europe. The therapies used include electro-acupuncture, hydrotherapies, physiotherapy. At the time of publication of this book (1951) Western Germany already had thousands of Doctors who were trained not only in mainstream medicine but were also natural medicine specialists (certified through the organisation: 'Physikalische Medizin und Rehabilitation').

history of naturopathy in europe, grafenberg sanatorium priessnitz
Priessnitz (in the middle, white coat) at the Grafenberg Sanatorium. Patients exercising in the background. Indoor exercise was described instead of outdoor work during bad weather.

The Status of Natural Medicine in the World in 1951

At the time of publication of this book, in 1951, the status of Natural Healthcare and Naturopathy in the World was explained by Toivo Rautavaara as follows.

In Finland only a certified Doctor was qualified to cure sick people. The Medical Board of Health (Laakintohallitus), a government agency, decides which are the scientific and approved methods of curing each disease. A doctor can recommend any healing modalities he desires but at his own risk. If his recommended approach fails, he can be trialled and he can lose his licence.

Only massage therapists, physiotherapists, and chiropractors have the license to provide hands-on therapies. A natural therapy centre is only allowed to receive and treat patients if they are supervised by a licensed Doctor. Laymen are allowed to advice on health and lifestyle matter but not cure diseases.

Various other countries have many types of healers as well as traditional Doctors. In Sweden there are operating homeopaths, who are not licensed Doctors. In Germany there are 'heilpraktiker' (healing practitioners), who provide homeopathic treatments and other natural treatments. In France there are only a few more Doctors than other healers. In Italy there are more than 10,000 herbalists, who hold University Degrees in herbalism. In England and the USA the old tradition of many types of healers is being continued, which include 'spiritual healers', who are able to give healing energy to the patients just by touching them. Their skills are officially recognized and even hospitals sometimes request their help.

In the Soviet Union (now Russia) the healing arts have been well-developed. Especially a large variety of healing herbs have been widely used. Research establishments have kept record of these plants and performed pharmacological studies on them. Doctors and even pharmaceutical companies are continuing the work of natural healers but traditional healers operate as well.

Interesting situations have developed in ancient civilizations such as India and China, who had developed their medical systems thousands of years before the birth of European medicine.

English conquerors brought English Doctors and Universities to India, with medical research departments. The Indian traditional medical system, Ayurveda, was not discarded but included within University studies. The modern researchers perform studies on the traditional treatment methods. Yoga and other Indian spirit and body treatment and exercise methods have spread to Western countries as well.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine system was untouched by foreign powers but Chairman Mao, for example, could not appreciate its importance but wanted Doctors to be trained by Western methods. At the same time, aspects of Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture and the study of meridians were introduced to Western countries. In China there are hundreds of thousands of educated Herbal Doctors who function as part of the healthcare System.

The traditional healing methodologies of the middle-Eastern civilizations, such as Sumerians, Assyrians and Phoenicians have disappeared. The European conquerors also destroyed highly-developed medical systems when they destroyed the cultures of Atzteks, Incas, Mayans and various African peoples. The World Health Organization has lead the establishment of Western Doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies' products into the third world countries.

More recently (still in 1951) both the governments of these countries and the WHO have realized that these peoples prefer their traditional healing methodologies over Western medicine and treatments. In addition there have been discoveries that the traditional healers have herbal and other treatments which are effective against illnesses that the Western Medicine can't cure. They have effective treatments for example for blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer. Moreover, they know their patients personally, the patients trust them, and the treatment modalities are appropriate to the local cultural norms. Today the Western doctors going to work in these countries are advised first of all to establish a connection with the local healers, to respect their work and to seek to collaborate with them.

Note: The information in this article was entirely based on the following book: Toivo Rautavaara: Miten Luonto Parantaa, 3rd edition (WSOY, 1980) and was translated from Finnish. The first edition was published in 1951.

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Continue reading....

The British Naturopathic Association website has a short histories of naturopathy in the UK and the world ( naturopaths.org.uk).

My visits to various Naturopaths - a collection of articles.
My visit to Traditional Chinese Doctor


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Ulla is the Editor of Cheap Health Revolution, covering natural remedies and health solutions. Read more about Ulla and this website here: "About CHR"


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