Here is an intriguing photo that I took at the exhibition "Magic Mountains: Switzerland as Energy Centre and Sanatorium" in the Swiss National Museum in Zürich. It shows a nurse giving a child a glass of ovalmaltine. The child and nurse are on skis, they are standing on snow and surrounded by high peaks, but what makes the photo most odd is the near nakedness of the youngster.
As Helen Webberley has written, the concept of healthy living reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was particularly strong in the German speaking world. In my last post I showed how many people sought solace from the ugliness of modern, industrial society by seeking a more natural way of living. Some emphasised a healthy diet, particularly vegetarianism, and Swiss doctor Max Bircher recommended muesli.
By the early 20th century Switzerland became the destination of choice of those who suffered from some physical or spiritual ailment and who could afford the latest treatment. Hermann Hesse was a frequent visitor to health clinics in Baden, Davos and Zürich. Thomas Mann, in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, captured the almost religious dedication to healthy living found at a sanatorium in Davos. Those who visited Davos included not only Mann himself but also the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Mann describes how the patients would lie quietly on their sun beds on the balconies of their rooms and soak up the invigorating rays of the sun.
Originally it was the Swiss doctor Arnold Rikli (1823-1906) who proposed that the sun’s rays on the naked body could cure all sorts of illness. He recommended that a healthy lifestyle should include fresh air, mineral water, vegetarianism, avoidance of alcohol and tobacco and, above all, the use of sunbath installations. He put this concept of heliotherapy into practice in his own sanatrorium in Slovenia. His ideas were applied in his native Switzerland, in Ascona, in the Monte Verita commune, which attracted theosophists, anarchist, communists and other supporters of the life reform movement. On the nearby Brissago Isles in Lake Maggiore the millionaire bohemian Max Emden practiced nudity and sunbathing in his modern Roman Baths as well as on his speedboat and yacht. What they all shared was a hatred of modern civilization. Nudity was seen not simply as a counter-establishment choice and a move towards liberation, but it was also seen as an option within a healthy lifestyle, particularly powerful in the fight against tuberculosis. Richard Ungewitter's Die Nacktheit, which promoted nudism as well as abstention from alcohol, meat and tobacco, became a bestseller in 1904. The print below, from the artist Fidus, sums up the Monte Verita attitude to nudity and sun worship. Entitled "Prayer to Light" it became the icon of the Life Reform Movement that centred around Ascona. Although it looks like an example of 1960s psychedelia, Fidus, who was highly influenced by the mystical ideas of Theosophy and the German Wandervogel movement ( a youth organisation that promoted hiking and camping in nature) before discovering the Monte Verita commune, painted it in 1906.
In 1903 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to Doctor Niels Finsen (1860-1904) for his work in treating patients with tuberculosis of the skin with ultra-violet light. That same year the Swiss physician Auguste Rollier (1874-1954) initiated the use of sunbaths at his tuberculosis sanatorium in Leysin, in south western Switzerland. The photo that I began with comes from Rollier’s Leysin clinic. A healthy diet (hence the ovalmaltine) and plenty of sunbathing became the chief features of this sanatorium that appealed to Europe wealthy class. Its fame spread quickly and in 1931 the sanatorium’s residents were treated to a lecture from the great Mahatma Gandhi, where he extolled the benefits of vegetarianism and a sober lifestyle.
Association pour le Patrimoine de Leysin)
Association pour le Patrimoine de Leysin)
Riki’s innovation certainly had some success in the fight against tuberculosis. But, in retrospect, we now know that his treatment must have left many of his patients with a malignant legacy – skin cancer.