Hydropathy in the Family

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. 

3 thoughts on “Hydropathy in the Family

  1. Pingback: A Water Cure of Their Own | Erika Janik

  2. Hi Erika Janik,
    My name is Inger Katrine Barstad, and I’m from Stavanger in Norway. I’m working on a family book about my great grandfather Albert L. Barstad who was born in Norway in 1866. I’m very interested in more information about the Kjellberg Institute in Chicago, but I can’t find much about this institute on the internet. Do you know when your great grandmother graduated in Chicago, and do you know if there was a Kjellberg Institute in Sweden too?
    One of our family members was married to Georg Kilb who was born in 1888 in Norway. He might have studied at the Kjellberg Institute when he was in America between 1907 and 1911. I have only been able to find a post card for sale on eBay with a photo of the Kjellberg Gymnasium in Chicago. Best regards, Inger K. Barstad.

    • Hi Inger,

      My great-grandmother graduated in the early 1920s – 24, maybe? I can’t quite remember off the top of my head. I do believe there was a Kjellberg in Stockholm based on something I read in History of the Swedes of Illinois edited by Ernst Wilhelm Olson, Martin J. Engberg, and Anders Schön. That book says that the school in Chicago was run by Axel Wiktor Akesson (who first attended the Kjellberg Institute in Stockholm before immigrating) who moved to Chicago from Sweden in 1891. The book says the school in Chicago was at 1107 Champlain Building, at the corner of State and Madison. I also found an advertisement for the school saying it was founded in 1885 and that it was at 10 East Huron Street. So… maybe it moved? I’m not sure. I don’t know much else about the school.

      I visited Stavanger this summer – what a lovely place. My husband and I had a great few days there visiting some farms where his family comes from.


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