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Alpine goodness gives clean bill of health

Early colour photograph of young patients taking heliotherapy treatment in Leysin. Zurich University Medical Museum

As early as the Bronze Age, alpine people were aware of the curative powers of their environment and used herbs to treat and prevent illnesses.

This content was published on February 28, 2004 - 14:02

The health-giving properties of the Swiss Alps are the subject of an exhibition at the Medical History Museum of Zurich University.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that alpine mineral sources began to be exploited, and only in the 19th century did “health tourism” start to develop with the opening of spas at high altitude.

Exhibition organiser Margrit Wyder told swissinfo that excavations of Bronze Age sites at St Moritz have revealed the earliest evidence of health-giving properties of the Alps, for example medicinal herbs.

“But it wasn’t until the building of the roads and the advent of railways in the 19th century that the spas began to spread,” she said.

“Many of the people taking the cure came from England and would stay in spas for months at a time.”

Alpine sun

As the exhibition points out, the medical practice of heliotherapy – exposing patients to controlled amounts of alpine sunlight to cure or alleviate various illnesses – became accepted practice from the late 19th to mid-20th century.

Dr Auguste Rollier (1874-1954) was probably the most famous heliotherapist of his day, and at his peak ran 36 clinics with over 1,000 beds just in Leysin, Canton Vaud.

He used sunlight, in winter as well as summer, to treat diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and rickets.

The practice had been pioneered by the Danish physician, Dr Niels Finsen, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903 for his treatment of TB using ultraviolet.

Healthy sunbathing

Rollier found that sunbathing early in the morning, combined with a nutritious diet, produced the best effects.

Another 19th century pioneer was Alexander Spengler, who after medical studies in Zurich became a doctor in the then remote town of Davos.

Dr Spengler soon became aware that the inhabitants of Davos – which lies at 1,500 metres – did not suffer from the tuberculosis that claimed tens of thousands of victims in Europe at the time, and his findings led to the spread of mountain health clinics.

However the Zurich exhibition also makes clear that despite their sunlight and fresh air, the Alps were not always a healthy environment.

“Goitre, or the enlargement of the thyroid gland, was a major health problem,” said Dr Wyder. “This was because of a lack of iodine in the water and soil due to the glaciers.

“Another hazard was the risk of accidents because of the nature of mountain regions.”

But as the exhibition illustrates, goitre can now be avoided using dietary additives, while mountain rescue facilities have become increasingly more sophisticated.

The exhibition is at Zurich University’s medical history museum until the end of March.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Zurich

In brief

Alpine herbs have been used for their medicinal properties for centuries.

Mineral sources in the Alps were first exploited in the Middle Ages.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of roads and railways, that “health tourism” began.

The medical practice of heliotherapy – exposing patients to alpine sunlight for illness such that tuberculosis – became accepted practice from the late 19th to mid-20th century.

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