The German “Water Doctor” Sebastian Kneipp turns 200


“Happy is the man who understands and strives to adopt more and more of what is necessary, useful and salutary.”  Father Sebastian Kneipp

The Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp discovered the healing power of water for himself in the 19th century and used it to overcome his tuberculosis. The philosophy he developed from this caused a sensation and the humble priest became one of the most famous Germans in the world.  Princes, empresses and the Pope swore by his services. Today, Kneipp therapy is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Sebastian Kneipp was born in 1821 in Bavaria.   His father was a weaver and Sebastian himself trained as a weaver until he was 23 before he began his training for the priesthood. He began instruction for the priesthood under Matthias Merkle, a priest in Grönenback.  Sebastian fell ill with severe tuberculosis in 1847, in fact he was so ill that he was visited by a physician nearly 100 times in each of his last two years of study.  During his debilitating illness he began reading many books and found his illness described in a book about water cures.   In 1850, Kneipp met a student in the Georgianum seminary in Munich who also suffered from a similar illness and he shared some of his water cures with the young Sebastian.  Some of these early exploratory treatments included regular bathing in the icy Danube River.   Sebastian through these experiments succeeded in energising, invigorating and strengthening his body.  Both Sebastian and his friend recovered from their illnesses and with his renewed health he was able to complete his studies and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1852.

Kneipp was one of the first to recognise that hydrotherapeutic treatments improve wellbeing and he developed the Kneipp Cure that bears his name and which the German UNESCO Commission has now included in the German nationwide intangible cultural heritage inventory. The aim of Kneipp’s naturopathic treatment was to maintain and restore human health.  The Kneipp kur/course of treatments integrates the five principles of; water (hydrotherapy), exercise (kinesiology), herbalism (phytotherapy), nutrition (dietetics) and balanced lifestyle management (regulative therapy).

How did it grow in popularity?
By the 1880s, Kneipp’s reputation for healing had spread throughout most German speaking countries. With the 1889 publication of My Water Cure – in over 100,000 copies, including foreign translations – his work at Bad Wörishofen gained worldwide recognition. When it reached North America, the philosophy actually formed the foundation of modern day naturopathy.

What does a Kneipp course include?
An authentic programme will integrate all five principles and simple applications for at least a week with a take-home regime. Some can even go up to three months depending on the persons level of sickness and therapeutic requirements.  While many associate the Kneipp programme with hydrotherapy it does include the inclusion of all the five pillars. That said, of course, water is the most powerful of these and there are more than 120 applications using water, including ablutions, wraps, packs and compresses, jet/shower sessions, baths, steam and sauna experiences, water treading and walking in dew, and especially the cold water treatments.

How does it work and what does it treat?
Everything in the Kneipp system works to facilitate the body’s own thermal reaction, reflexes and immune responses. The various water applications, for example, range in temperature from icy and cold to tepid, warm, hot and steamy and these work to improve blood flow, lymph circulation and regulate the metabolism.

Kneipp therapy can be used to treat an extremely wide variety of ailments from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses to digestive disorders and rheumatic and neuralgic conditions. It can also be used in prevention or to help with overall personal wellness – to increase happiness levels (via parasympathetic stimulation) and can even help with fatigue, memory and attention deficit disorder in particular by the elimination of dehydration in the body.

In case you think that this is all holistic gobbledegook, all of it has been backed up by scientific research over centuries, starting as early as 1884 with the foundation of the International Kneipp Doctor’s Society.

How popular is Kneipp therapy today and where is it practiced?
Bad Wörishofen is known as a major healing destination with famous facilities including The Sebastinaeum and Kneippianum. Other spa towns are Bad Grönenbach, Bad Lauterberg and Ottobeuren.   Although Kneipp therapy originated in Germany it is widely practiced in many European countries and in the US extensively today.

Who would benefit the most from Kneipp therapy?
In an overly digitised world full of constant distraction people are finding amazing benefits today from the wise old water doctor’s treatments.   His treatments appeal to anyone who knows and understands the vital importance of being connected with nature, harmony and spirit and in particular to those “water babies” out there.

Kneipp’s Legacy?

Sebastian Kneipp expanded the definition of health to include a more holistic view which incorporated mental, social, and spiritual aspects.  Toward the end of his life and after his death, many organizations were set up to teach his methods.  In 1891, he founded Kneipp Bund, an organization that promotes water healing to this day.  In America, Kneipp Societies were founded, which, under the influence of Benedict Lust changed their name to the Naturopathic Society of America.  Today there are over 600 organizations which are part of Kneipp Worldwide and there are approximately 1000 members of the International Society of Kneipp Physicians.  Following his death, his treatments became part of mainstream medicine in Germany and indeed form part of the German Healthcare system today.

Archduke Josef dedicated his medical atlas to Kneipp.  Like Queen Elizabeth II, Kneipp’s likeness was featured on a postage stamp and his recipe for whole wheat bread, called Kneippbrød is the most commonly eaten bread in Norway.  There are more than sixty accredited Kneipp spas and health resorts in Germany alone today.

Here above you can watch reporter Hendrik Welling taking a Kneipp cure in Bad Wörishofen where it all began.

Let me finish my article on Kneipp with a quote from the master himself –

“Water, bestowed by the creator of man, and plants selected from the plant kingdom form the essential elements needed to cure diseases and make the body healthy”   

Sebastian Kneipp (1821–1897)

With thanks to , the Kneipp Institute, and DW Television 

For details on some beautiful places in Germany to book your Kneipp experience visit –  



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