Vincenz Priessnitz: the founder of modern hydrotherapy

Vincenz Priessnitz monument in Smetana's orchards in Jeseník

Vincenz Priessnitz, the founder of modern hydrotherapy, was born in the Olomouc Region. He founded a spa near the town of Jeseník that successfully applies his curative methods to this day.

Vincenz Priessnitz | Photo: public domain

Vincenz Priessnitz was the son of a local crofter and an unusually talented young man with great intuition, observation skills, and common sense. From his first attempts at healing animals and himself, he was able to move on to treating the injuries of other people and eventually established a world-renowned hydrotherapy spa.

At the age of sixteen, Vincenz was seriously injured when a load of wood fell from a horse-drawn carriage and crushed his chest, breaking several ribs. The doctors of the time offered little help with what was then considered a severely debilitating injury. Their treatment, a combination of leeches, hot compresses and rest, produced no results and so Vincenz started treating himself. The chief archivist of Jeseník, Květoslav Krovka explains.

“He went in the opposite direction, according to what he saw around him. He observed how injured cattle was treated, that the blacksmith would clean the wound with cold water and apply cold compresses. That is something that goes back to ancient times. Today we also apply a cold pad when we have a headache or a burn. So he just applied those ancient wisdoms. He aligned his broken ribs with the help of a chair backrest, and then persistently applied a self-treatment of wet bandages on his injury. Within a year, he had recovered completely, a feat which, at that time, was considered nothing short of a miracle. And people from the vicinity started seeking him out for help with their ailments.”

Hydrotherapy according to Vincenz Priessnitz | Photo: Daniela Vrbová,  Czech Radio

In 1819, the young Priessnitz was treating people in his hometown in Gräfenberg, a hilly area which is today a part of the town of Jeseník. At first, he treated family members and people from the neighborhood who occasionally paid for the service with their produce. Soon people were coming from further afield and he would find a place for them to stay on neighbouring farms. Květoslav Krovka says he soon saw the need to establish a proper facility where he could house and treat patients.

“In 1822, he added a second floor to the Priessnitz family house and started receiving patients on the ground floor, where he installed two wooden washtubs. His cures worked, word of his abilities spread and his clientele grew, enabling him to expand further. In 1826 he bought a house across the road which he reconstructed into a medical facility and in 1839 he basically established the groundwork of the Jeseník spa as we know it today. When he started, he had 5 to 6 patients and in 1839 he was treating 1,500. “

Birthplace of Vincenz Priessnitz | Photo: Jitka Mládková,  Radio Prague International

However, the road to success was not without obstacles. Although word of Priessnitz’s medical skills spread quickly and people came from far and wide to be treated by him, his practice faced stiff resistance from rival doctors and healers, who did not welcome competition. As part of a smear campaign, Priessnitz was even accused of witchcraft and shortly detained in the local jail. In 1838, he finally obtained official permission for his operation and started developing his business in earnest.

“He approached his patients differently from other doctors of the time. He did not give them medicine and send them off. He carefully listed their names, their problems, diagnosed them and decided on curative procedures, which were conducted under his strict control and guidance.”

Photo: Czech Television

The early spa treatments included bathing, scrubbing, and applying wet bandages. But the basic principle was simple: alternately exposing the body to cold and hot water.

Aristocrats were soon joining the ranks of simple farmers as spa guests. Regardless of their social standing, all patients had a tough daily regime. There were very strict rules in Priessnitz’s spa regarding diet, drinking, and the procedures themselves. The latter were accompanied by a so-called labour therapy, during which, to warm up sufficiently, patients would be required to shovel snow or leaves, or chop wood. If someone went against these rules, they had to leave the spa immediately.”

Still, simple folk or nobility, they trusted him and were ready to do his bidding. Květoslav Krovka says those whom he treated regarded it as a privilege.

Jeseník Spa in 1910 | Photo: public domain

“The clients were mainly nobility from today’s Poland and Ukraine, but also from Austria and Germany. Not everyone could afford Priessnitz’s spa treatment. His treatment took time –time which clients had to spend at the spa. The spa stay was not 21 days like today – the treatment could take months and even years. And in later years, after the establishment of Czechoslovakia, the VIP guests included members of the government, for instance foreign minister Jan Masaryk, his sister Alice, and many leading entrepreneurs.”

During the communist period the spa did not develop, but it was not closed down or destroyed and after the fall of communism in 1989 it could build on its tradition and flourish.

Priessnitz Sanatorium | Photo: Libor Kukal,  Radio Prague International

Today, the Priessnitz Spa Resort in Jeseník is one of the country’s most frequented spas. It is very successful in treating respiratory diseases as well as psychological disorders and diseases of the circulatory system.

Priessnitz Spa Resort in Jeseník | Photo: Miroslav Kobza,  Czech Radio

Some things have changed since Priessnitz’s day. Guests are no longer made to chop wood, and neither are they thrown out for drinking alcohol. But some of the founder’s original methods, such as the hot and cold baths, are still in use. And the spa treatment is still combined with the benefits of spending time outdoors. The clean natural environment of Jeseník remains a key component of the spa treatment.

Due to his natural intelligence, persistence and common sense Vincenz Priessnitz, son of a local crofter, made an indelible mark on his home town and his healing methods are still in use almost two centuries later.

Authors: Daniela Lazarová , Vít Pohanka | Source: Český rozhlas
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