Sebastian Kneipp was born to a poor family in Stephansreid, Bavaria, on May 17, 1821. He initially took up his father’s trade of weaving, but longed to become a priest.
With help from a sympathetic clergyman, he was admitted to high school as a mature student, but after five years of intensive studies, Kneipp became seriously ill with pulmonary tuberculosis.
At that time, the disease was usually fatal, but Kneipp came across an eighteenth-century book about hydrotherapy that inspired him during the winter of 1849 to immerse himself several times a week in the icy Danube River.
These brief exposures to cold water seemed to bolster his immune system, because Kneipp’s tuberculosis went into remission and he was able to continue his theological studies in Munich. There, he convinced some of his fellow students to join his experiments with hydrotherapy.
Kneipp was ordained as a priest in 1852. In that capacity, he began using hydrotherapy to help some of his poorer parishioners. He broadened his approach to include herbalism, exercise, and other elements, and toned down his initial enthusiasm for shocking the body with cold water.
“I warn all against too-frequent application of cold water,” he later wrote. “Three times I concluded to remodel my system and relax the treatment from severity to mildness and thence to greater mildness still.”
Kneipp’s reputation grew after a number of dying patients recovered when he was called to administer last rites and managed instead to restore them to health. In 1855 he was assigned to Worishofen, a village in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps that soon developed an international reputation as a place of healing.
Father Kneipp was later named a monsignor by Pope Leo XIII. After his death in Worishofen on June 17, 1897, his wellness techniques became less popular, but interest in hydrotherapy increased again during the latter part of the twentieth century.
Proponents of Kneipp therapy believe that it bolsters the immune system and results in improved overall wellness. In Germany, it is especially popular for treating varicose veins.
Today, Kneipp physiotherapy is essentially a form of classical naturopathy. It is founded on five “pillars”:
- Hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy involves the use of hot and cold water to stimulate the nerves, blood vessels and internal organs. It uses baths, compresses, packs, and water jets.
- Phytotherapy. Plant therapy takes the form of medicinal herbs added to bath water and also administered as juices, lozenges, teas, or ointments, etc.
- Exercise therapy. This aspect of treatment involves long hikes, gymnastics, tennis, cycling, and other vigorous activities to amplify the effects of the water and herb therapies.
- Nutrition therapy, which employs a low-protein, highfiber diet. Special Kneipp diets are also available for weight loss or such ailments as gout, diabetes, or metabolic problems.
- Health maintenance therapy. Patients in the Kneipp program are trained to adhere to their natural biorhythms.
Side effects may vary, depending on the numerous herbs used in Kneipp therapy. When in doubt, it is best to consult a knowledgeable herbalist.
Research and general acceptance
Initially, Kneipp was rejected as a charlatan by the medical establishment. At one point, he was taken to court for quackery, although the judge acquitted him after learning from Kneipp about the shortage of physicians in Alpine villages. Kneipp is now recognized by naturopaths as a founding father of their discipline.
The benefits of immersion in water are wellknown to physiotherapists, but there is so far little conclusive evidence that Kneipp or other methods of hydrotherapy can increase the body’s immunity.
There is little doubt among medical doctors that patients should benefit from the vigorous exercise and high-fiber diet included in the Kneipp prescription for wellness.