I drink a lot of water every day. And I walk a lot, everywhere in fact, many, many, many miles a day. So when I first started reading about hydropathy, I could easily see myself fitting right in with the hydropaths. They instructed patients to drink at least 12 glasses of water (actually “tumblers”) a day and to walk as far as possible between treatments. One guy, James Wilson, took the advice to drink a lot of water a little overboard–he drank more than thirty glasses before breakfast while staying at the original hydropathy institute in Grafenberg, Germany. When he started his own water cure in England, he gave everyone glasses so they could follow his lead.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one with hydropathic sympathies in the family. On a recent trip to visit my parents, I discovered that my great-grandmother graduated from the Kellberg Institute for Hygiene, Massage, and Medical Gymnastics in Chicago with a specialty in water-therapeutics. She was a 20th century hydropath! No wonder I love all this medical history!

Medical gymnastics is what we would think of as just exercising today. It was the use of physical exercise as a therapy to restore or stay healthy. The medical and health benefits of exercising don’t need to be justified today, but until the 20th century, many people were not sure that exercise wasn’t harmful, especially to women.

From my very limited initial research, it appears that the Kellberg Institute was founded by Swedish immigrants (my great-grandmother was also a Swedish immigrant to Chicago). This makes sense as the Swedes had been particularly interested in the use of gymnastics for health since the early 19th century. They used gymnastics to improve the physical fitness of the general public in schools, in the military and as a medical healing process. 

Medical gymnastics in action



Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish gymnastic system in the early 19th century. He was a fencing master, and with his son Hjalmer, he developed a program of functional physical gymnastics training. They founded the Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm in 1813 to provide training for teachers and members of the military. Ling’s Swedish gymnastics programs had four parts: medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic. Training involved the correct performance of prescribed gymnastic movements under the watchful eye of a trainer.


Other European countries followed Sweden’s lead and instituted gymnastics programs to aid physical healing and to promote health from the early 19th century onward. This was likely the program taught at the Kellberg Institute to graduates like my great-grandmother.  


By the 20th century, hydropathy in its original form had virtually disappeared, morphed into an overall system of hygiene and exercise that would be quite recognizable as the keys to good health today: exercise, a sensible diet, plenty of sleep, and lots of water. 


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