Letter from Europe

A revolution in the hills: hydrotherapy

Issue no. 2022/3

Picture above: photo © Ssb111 / dreamstime.com


It was in the Czech town of Jeseník two hundred years ago that a self-taught farmer sparked a medical revolution. Like all revolutions, it was not well received by the establishment. Vincenz Priessnitz was the founder of hydrotherapy, first pioneered in 1822.

Dear fellow travellers

Travelling north up the Morava Valley, the hills close in, rising steeply on both sides of the railway. We pause at Ruda, and just beyond that village’s train station we slip over the fiftieth parallel. Unseen, unmarked, but it seems like an important milestone on the journey. Soon we are climbing again, now following the River Branná up towards its headwaters. Then the railway performs some pirouettes, looping up and over a gentle col and now it’s downhill all the way to the spa at Lipová and the bigger community of Jeseník close to the Polish border in the north-east part of the Czech Republic.

There is good reason to visit these outposts in the hills in 2022. For it was in Jeseník two hundred years ago that a self-taught farmer sparked a medical revolution. Like all revolutions, it was not well received by the establishment. In 1822, Vincenz Priessnitz, then still only a young man in his early twenties and without any medical background, established the Priessnitz spa on the sunny south-facing slopes overlooking the town that nowadays is called Jeseník. In those days Jeseník, then part of the Habsburg Empire, was known by the German name of Frywaldov.

Vincenz Priessnitz was a local lad, the son of a farmer. Vincenz observed how wounded deer would bathe a damaged limb in running stream water, a therapy which he deployed for himself to good effect when, at the age of sixteen, he had several ribs crushed in an accident with a cart. And thus it was that, in a remote corner of the Czech hills, Vincenz Priessnitz hit upon the notion of hydrotherapy.

A few wooden huts up on the hills above Frywaldov marked the start of Priessnitz’s therapeutic adventures, and within a decade his spa, called Gräfenberg, had become an industry, albeit one that in its early years ruffled the feathers of the Austrian medical establishment. Priessnitz’ sanatorium became hugely popular, and the medical historian Roy Porter records that in 1839 alone it played host to one monarch, a duke and duchess, 22 princes and 149 counts and countesses plus thousands of perfectly ordinary citizens.

Of course the therapeutic values of certain waters have never been in dispute, and the Hippocratic tradition of Airs, Waters, Places, detailed with dignified restraint in the treatise of the same name, served throughout the eighteenth century as a considerable incentive to travel. The landed classes of northern Europe once made pilgrimages to Rome or Santiago de Compostela, but spas outpaced religion in the travel stakes and those with money and time now sought out the waters of Vichy, Bath or Baden-Baden. Drinking the waters was one thing. Priessnitz went further. It was important to bathe in the waters.

But the allure of the spa season reached far beyond the realm of health. The medical treatments on offer were often shunned by clients drawn to the many competing diversions; there were balls, fine dinners aplenty, gambling and above all the opportunity to develop and promote all manner of liaisons, some wholly innocuous, others rich in dangerous possibilities. It was not for nothing that a late eighteenth-century French cleric described the Paris gutters as being more wholesome than Vichy.

At his sanatorium in the hills, Vincenz Priessnitz challenged these wayward spa traditions by introducing an altogether stricter and more puritan regime. Austerity was good for the heart, good for the waistline and surely good for the soul too.

Emphasising the importance of clean air and pure water, Priessnitz celebrated the mountain location of his new spa at Gräfenberg and above all promoted novel forms of hydrotherapy. Cold water compresses, baths and showers were interspersed with mountain walks. Priessnitz’ fad quickly spread, finding favour in the English spa at Malvern in Worcestershire, which benefitted from the adjacent fine range of hills.

Eventually Priessnitz even had the Austrian medical establishment on his side, and his therapies were incorporated into the curriculum at the medical school in Vienna and thus gained credibility throughout the whole Austro-Hungarian empire. American physicians also journeyed to Gräfenberg, and returned to the US to found the spa at Lebanon Springs in New York state, an establishment which from the outset operated on Priessnitzian principles.

No one could pretend that the new hydrotherapies were fun, but everyone colluded in agreeing that the Priessnitz’ cold water cures were effective. The verdict of the French social commentator Hippolyte Taine, as he watched the bodies pummelled by cold water jets at Gräfenberg, was rather stern: “one has to be very fit to take the cure here.”

From small beginnings in 1822, Gräfenberg grew throughout its founder’s lifetime. Priessnitz died in 1851, a rich and revered man, but Gräfenberg was then eclipsed by an illustrious trio of spa towns in western Bohemia: Karlsbad, Franzensbad and Marienbad, all of which, in varying degrees, had espoused the new generation of hydrotherapies popularised at Gräfenberg. But devotees of pure hydrotherapy ride the train north beyond the fiftieth parallel to Jeseník where the emphasis is still very much on the simple, natural therapies pioneered by Vincenz Priessnitz.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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