Bircher muesli, developed by the Swiss doctor Max Bircher-Benner, is famous throughout the world, but few remember his niece who carried on his legacy.
Dagmar Liechti-von Brasch was a woman ahead of her times: the charismatic doctor took over Bircher-Benner’s Zurich clinic in the 1940s after his death. She was also a mother of four.
Liechti-von Brasch was born in Estonia in 1911, the daughter of a Baltic German aristocrat Allo von Brasch and Bircher-Benner’s sister Alice, who had met in the clinic.
Alice’s death in 1916 and the tensions in the region after the outbreak of the First World War resulted in the three eldest von Brasch children being sent to their uncle in Switzerland for their safety.
“Dagmar herself regarded it as her destiny that she did not grow up in Estonia but came to Switzerland, which opened the way up to her work,” said Kathrin Barbara Zatti, one of the authors of a biography of Liechti-von Brasch.
It was this book, Dagmar Liechti-von Brasch: Between Bircher Muesli and a Philosophy of Life, that provided the impetus to the Swiss National Museum’s exhibition, Magic Mountains, looking back at Switzerland’s golden age as a health paradise, which was held earlier this year.
The children’s stay was supposed to be short-term and indeed, at the beginning the young Liechti-von Brasch struggled to adjust to her new family and surroundings.
But in 1921 she decided to remain with the Bircher-Benners, while her siblings returned to their father. One reason was her deep admiration for her “Onkelpapa” (uncle father).
“Max Bircher-Benner was a very deep, spiritual human being. He must have had charisma and he was a pioneer as well as a man of his time,” Zatti told swissinfo.ch.
“His family was very patriarchal. There was severe discipline, which was absolutely usual for that time and level of society.”
Bircher-Benner had built up a clinic in the exclusive Zürichberg area on a philosophy of healthy living – a diet of raw vegetables, including the apple-based muesli, and strict daily regime with exercise before breakfast – and a holistic approach to medicine, which encompassed both body and soul.
Eastern philosophies were discussed at the breakfast table as were the theories of Freud and the daily happenings at the clinic. Among the international visitors were the German author Hermann Hesse, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps and the education pioneer Maria Montessori.
It was perhaps hardly surprising that in this atmosphere Liechti-von Brasch decided that she, too, wanted to be a doctor.
She studied at Zurich University, which was a pioneer in the domain - the first female medic graduated there in 1873 - but still encountered male hostility.
Her uncle, although fully supportive, was worried that matrimony would interfere. Liechti-von Brasch thus resolved not to give up her profession should she have a family. She was soon assisting him at the clinic.
“Bircher-Benner had three sons that studied medicine and he had hoped one of them would follow him as clinic director, but all three did not manage. So in a way, he appointed her as his successor,” Zatti said.
Bircher-Benner died in 1939, leading Liechti-von Brasch to mourn the loss of her, “father figure, role model and teacher”.
She continued to work in the clinic, finally taking over as medical lead in 1947 after other solutions – including the sons - had failed. Her position was highly unusual for a woman in Switzerland. Until the 1960s, only ten per cent of doctors were women and they rarely rose up the ranks.
Zatti says Liechti-von Brasch never really wanted all the administrative responsibilities. “She understood herself as being the heart of the clinic and leading it that way: keeping her uncle’s heritage,” Zatti said.
Marriage and family
In the meantime Liechti-von Brasch had married childhood friend Eugen Liechti, to whom she had been secretly engaged. They eventually had four children.
A working mother was still unusual for the time, says Zatti, and the situation was aided by living near the clinic and household help. Liechti-von Brasch was always there for lunch and dinner.
“When she was very young she had already learned to work in a very concentrated way and with little sleep,” Zatti explained.
“So she had the evening after work to be with the children. She then had her four hours of sleep, before she got up early in the morning for her own work, which included doing a kind of meditation and other tasks, and then she started off early in the morning to see the patients.”
Liechti-von Brasch even managed to write a book on having a healthy pregnancy, based on her own experiences.
Striking and charismatic
Striking and with a strong charisma, the doctor was loved by her patients and oversaw a second blossoming of the Bircher-Benner clinic. She was the reason many international clients came to the institution.
“She had a very deep and holistic understanding of human nature and beings,” Zatti said.
The doctor saw herself as an instrument of healing, rather than someone who cured people. “This is, in a way, an ancient and avant garde way of understanding medicine,” Zatti said.
Liechti-von Brasch retired from the clinic in 1980, aged almost 70, but continued to practise medicine. Although it is not totally clear why the clinic started to fail, Zatti says the lack of a suitable successor was certainly one reason. Also, times had changed.
In 1995 the clinic was closed and sold. The site is now an executive training centre for Zurich Financial Services. Liechti-von Brasch died in 1993.
“It must have been a life of really tough work and dedication,” Zatti said. “But I think she regarded herself as blessed by her life.”
Father of Bircher Muesli
As a young doctor, Max Bircher-Benner became convinced of the healing powers of fruit and vegetables.
Between 1895 and 1900 he conducted numerous nutritional experiments with raw vegetables on himself, his family and suitable patients, finally developing the now internationally famous Bircher Muesli.
The main ingredient then was raw apple, rather than the cereal or yoghurt of today. By the 1940s it was a popular family supper dish. By the 1950s-1960s, however, it had extra ingredients such as cream and sugar. Industrially-produced muesli with dried fruits is now also common. These later additions were against Bircher-Benner’s ideas.
Bircher-Benner’s famous sanatorium, which had an international clientele, was called “Lebendige Kraft” (Vital Force). It opened on the Zürichberg, a hill above Zurich, in 1904, the time when the “life reform” movement, which had evolved as a reaction against 19th century industrialisation, was gaining pace in Switzerland.
Bircher-Benner died on January 24, 1939 at the age of 72 and the Vital Force sanatorium was renamed as the Bircher-Benner Clinic in his memory in the same year. Dagmar Liechti-von Brasch, his niece, took over in 1947 and ran the clinic until 1980.
In 1995 the clinic was closed and sold. It has since been purchased by Zurich Financial Services, and is named the Zurich Development Center. It is used for executive training, and also houses an extensive private art collection. The campus is made up of the original Bircher-Benner clinic, its three chalets, and Bircher-Benner's private residence.