As a pioneer in holistic, natural healing in the early twentieth century, Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner was considered a radical in the medical world for preaching that exercise, spiritual peace, and diet were keys to a healthy body and mind.
Dr. Bircher-Benner may have been scorned by the traditional medical establishment of that era, but that did not stop him from opening his “Vital Force” clinic in Zurich. There he developed the world-renowned health food Muesli. Today the good doctor is recognized as one of the founders of vegetarianism and the earliest supporter of a raw-food diet.
Let’s take a look at Dr. Bircher-Benner’s contributions to healthy living as we celebrate him today.
Maximillian Bircher was born in Arau, Switzerland in 1867. He attended the University of Zurich as a medical student. At the time, different theories regarding nutrition were heavily debated. Some theorized that all human energy came from meat; some believed human’s best source of energy came from vegetables. Max was solidly in the vegetarianism camp; from there, he evolved his passion for raw food.
People did not generally eat uncooked food because Western culture believed that raw foods were hard to digest. At the time, all vegetables and fruits were thoroughly cooked before they were eaten. However, Dr. Bircher was open to the new ideas that were circulating regarding nutrition.
Upon graduation, Max went to Berlin to study the water-cure method with Sebastian Kneipp. He traveled to Heinrich Lahmann’s clinic near Dresden to learn about diet therapy and then to Vienna to attend Wilhelm Wintemitz on hydrotherapy.
Dr. Bircher married Elisabeth Benner in 1899 and changed his name to Dr. Bircher-Benner.
When Max returned to Zurich, he opened a clinic for physical therapy, electrotherapy, and hydrotherapy. He called his clinic “Lebendige Kraft” (Vital Force.) The clinic had only seven beds, but its affluent proximity in Zurich got the attention of people who could afford the doctor’s therapies.
The doctor’s raw food ideas were solidifying by this point. He believed that raw foods held vital nutrition in them from “solar light energy.” Conversely, he thought cooked meat was the poorest form of nutritional energy. When he presented his ideas to a local medical association in 1900, they did not react well and labeled him a “quack.” Unfortunately, his solar energy ideas destroyed his academic reputation.
Still, the doctor gained a following, and he pressed on.
In 1903, he published “Brief fundamentals of nutritional therapy on the basis of the energetic tension in food.” Within a year, demand for his therapies became popular enough that he had to expand the clinic. In 1904, he moved it to the suburbs of Zurich and renamed the clinic “Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft” (Vital Force Sanitarium.)
At Vital Force, the doctor developed a living and eating regime he called the “order therapy.” Participants rose at 6 am, walked before breakfast, spent most of the day outside exercising, and went to bed at 9 pm. The regime also included massages, sunbaths, and cold showers.
No alcohol, coffee, or tobacco were allowed on the premises, and the food plan was pretty much a raw vegetarian and dairy diet only. Alice Bircher and Berta Brupbacher-Bircher, the doctor’s sisters, transformed his raw food ideas into recipes for the clinic. Every meal started with a dish of their famous Muesli, which contained grated whole apple with nuts, milk, and oats.
Over the following years, the clinic attracted well-known people such as Hermann Hesse, Golda Meir, and Thomas Mann.
In 1927, Dr. Benner-Bircher publicly declared that he had given up meat entirely. By the late 1920s, his ideas gained popularity among the general public, and the doctor had become an authority in less conventional, homeopathic medical circles.
Max Bircher-Benner hated that the medical community did not respect him. It’s a bitter-sweet footnote to his life that his work was recognized after his death in 1939 upon the discovery of Vitamin C and other nutrients in fresh fruits and vegetables.
As the founder of the first plant-based diet clinic and proponent of cleansing to address chronic illness, Dr. Max Benner-Bircher was truly a man before his time. His ideas from more than 100 years ago shaped our understanding of holistic medicine and the importance of raw foods are still practiced today.
And his Muesli creation, known the world over, remains the standard breakfast not only in his native Switzerland but every European country.