Sebastian Kneipp was born on 17 May 1821 as the fourth child of a weaver in Stephansried near Ottobeuren. His childhood, marked by poverty and deprivation, was spent working hard and helping his father at the loom. Even as a young boy he knew that he wanted to enter the Church. He applied to many rectories but received only rejections. The first significant turn in his life came in 1842 when he had contact with Dr. Merkle, the Chaplain of Bad Grönenbach and a distant relative of his family. Merkle recognized Kneipp’s giftedness and gave him considerable support. Kneipp stayed with him for one and a half years in Grönenbach, then followed his mentor and patron to Augsburg and, a short time later, to Dillingen, were he attended grammar school from 1844.
In 1846 Kneipp contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. Despite being seriously ill, he gained his school leaving diploma in only four years. His health deteriorated completely in the spring of 1849 at the beginning of his theological studies. During this difficult time, he drew courage and hope from a book published in 1743 on the healing powers of water written by Dr. Johann Siegmund Hahn. He put the findings described in this book into practice in the form of reckless experimentation upon himself. On 16 November 1849 he had a key experience that was to change his life completely. He ran gasping and wheezing and as if in a trance to the Danube, tore off his clothes and dived into the river. Overheated though he was, he immersed himself up to the neck in the icy water for the count of three, got out, dressed again and ran home as fast as he could. The result was amazing: Kneipp felt so increasingly refreshed and better that he repeated the experiment three days later. Again he felt an invigorating and refreshing sense of well-being. From then on, he took brief immersions in the freezing cold waters of the Danube two or three times a week. In addition, he prescribed himself half baths and rinses. (This was basically the birth of Kneipp hydrotherapy: physical exertion to warm the body, then a very short, cold, stimulating shock, after which the skin is left wet, followed by immediate physical exertion to warm the body again.)
Sebastian Kneipp completely regained his health and his vital energy was once again restored to the full. In 1849 he received a scholarship to study theology at the Georgianum Seminary in Munich. Here he continued his cold water treatment and also occasionally used it to treat some of his fellow students’ complaints. He quickly earned the nickname “Dr. Hydrophilus”.
In 1852, aged 31, he completed his studies at the Georgianum Seminary and received diaconal ordination in the Cathedral of Augsburg on 5 August. A day later he was ordained as a priest. On 24 August 1852 he celebrated his ordination together with his father in Ottobeuren Abbey.
In the same year, Kneipp began treating patients who came to him, either because doctors had not been able to help them or they did not have the means to pay for a doctor. He also gave help on many occasions when he was called out to the ill in his capacity as a priest, for example to perform the last rights. He completely cured a woman of cholera. Word soon got about that the “cholera chaplain”, as he was reverentially called, gave help fast and free of charge, a fact that met with increasing criticism from doctors and apothecaries. They were affronted by Kneipp’s activities and started legal proceedings against him. He appeared in court where he defended himself by arguing that surely help should be available for the ill whom doctors could or would not help and for the poor. The case took an unexpected turn when the judge asked Kneipp for advice on treating his rheumatism and in his verdict gave him the right to cure the needy and the destitute.
After several postings Kneipp was sent to the Dominican Monastery in Bad Wörishofen in April 1855 as confessor where, owing to his sound knowledge, he also acted as an agricultural adviser. He caused quite a sensation when he successfully combated foot and mouth disease in cattle with the help of hydrotherapy. His efforts in the fields of beekeeping and honey production received international recognition. He even wrote agricultural reference books on important issues such as arable farming and animal husbandry. In addition to his actual job as a priest, he treated the poor and those on whom the medical profession had given up with diverse and comprehensive hydrotherapy mostly using cold water.
1855 to 1880 was a very significant period in Kneipp’s life. His success in healing himself motivated him to combine and extend his so-far tried and tested water treatments. This he did by observing and carrying out numerous tests on himself and his patients in order to create a successful preventative and curative concept with constantly improved and refined methods. His treatments included cold rinses, water stepping, hot and cold half and full baths, contrast baths as well as hot and cold wet packs and compresses.
In 1886 Kneipp’s first book, “My Water Cure” was published, which also included his herbal remedies and a chapter on “energy giving foods.” The book was an absolute success and increased rather than reduced the steady stream of those seeking help and healing, which had actually been his intention in writing the book. Working together with a doctor who made the diagnoses, he saw over 150 health spa patients a day in his consultation rooms.
His second book, “Thus Shalt Thou Live”, which described his principles for healthy living, was published in 1889. Further books followed such as “My Will: A Legacy To The Healthy And The Sick” (1891) and “The Codicil To My Will: A Legacy To The Healthy And The Sick” (1894), in which he set down the ultimate version of his constantly refined and amended cures.
In 1890 Sebastian Kneipp met the Würzburg apothecary, Leonhard Oberhäußer. They became close partners and good friends through their shared conviction of doing good using naturopathic medicine and healing remedies. A year later Kneipp entrusted his friend and fellow apothecary with the legacy of his lifelong studies and granted him the exclusive rights to develop, produce and sell pharmaceutical, cosmetic as well as dietary products “under the name and with the image of Father Sebastian Kneipp.” Using natural plant essences and other pure ingredients as a base, they created the formulas that still to this day constitute the basis for all of Kneipp’s products.
Sebastian Kneipp set up three foundations in Bad Wörishofen: the “Sebastianeum” (1891), the “Kneipp Children’s Sanatorium” (1893) and the “Kneippianum” (1896). These three foundations have been following his teachings and healing the sick to this day.
Kneipp was a popular speaker on his many journeys at home and abroad. It is estimated that he had a total audience of over a million in the three years he spent travelling and speaking. He attracted the attention of the European high nobility when he successfully cured Archduke Johann of Austria-Hungary of sciatica. After several audiences with Pope Leo XIII, Kneipp was appointed papal chamberlain in 1893. This brought with it the title of “monsignor.” The appointment was important for Kneipp as it meant papal recognition of his work. The pope encouraged him to continue caring for the health of his fellow men in addition to carrying out his duties as a priest.
Sebastian Kneipp died in Bad Wörishofen on 17 June 1897 at the age of 76. At the time, together with Emperor Wilhelm II and Bismarck he was one of the three most famous people in the German empire.
Sebastian Kneipp’s legacy is his magnificent life’s work. He left a logical, holistically orientated therapy concept that is appropriate for all age groups, especially in preventative health care but also in the treatment of acute and chronic illnesses.