The existence and the subsequent prominence of Priessnitz Medical Spa plc is something for which the spa is deeply indebted to Vincenz Priessnitz. It was he who devised the model upon which dozens of hydrotherapy institutions across Europe were based. Born on 4 October 1799, in the small settlement of Gräfenberg, 2 km from Fryvaldov (Jeseník), he was the sixth child of a peasant farmer, Jan Frantisek Priessnitz, and his wife Marie Terezie Eva.
Forced to take over their smallholding after the death of his father, Vincenz Priessnitz, who was just 12 years of age at the time, found he had no time left for school. Therefore, his education was shaped by nature, of which he was an avid observer. He encountered the wonders of water through watching a wounded deer heal its hoof by bathing it in a small forest spring. As an individual, Priessnitz possessed intuition, as well as extraordinary powers of observation and memory. Furthermore, he was able to put his ideas into practice at the right time and place.
In fact, the first time his theories on the healing effects of cold water were put to the test was on himself. When 16 years old, he fell under a fully loaded horse-drawn carriage and the wheels ran over his chest. A surgeon was called and stated the injury was fatal; at best, the young man looked as if he would remain crippled. Vincenz, however, staked everything on water. Although his treatment lasted a year, Vincenz ultimately recovered. Reports of this ‘miracle’ quickly spread, initially attracting locals to Gräfenberg, but soon others from further afield started to ask for help. Priessnitz was not one to refuse aid - he healed dislocated arms and legs, blood clots and fractures, and later even rheumatism, gout, chronic constipation, and liver and stomach illnesses. As a consequence, talk of his new method of treatment and its results entered the world’s stage.
The ‘Water Doctor’ of the Jeseniky mountains, as he was dubbed, had an ever increasing number of supporters, but he also created enemies amongst surgeons and those eyeing his success enviously. Nevertheless, in 1822, his house was completely refurbished, which had originally been a wooden building. Transformed into a stone structure, it boasted more space and rooms especially designed for healing, making it the world’s first hydrotherapy institute. Detractors, in the form of physicians of the time, launched a frenzied campaign against this layman and his ‘unscientific’ methods, with legal actions being submitted against the treatment. In order to straighten the situation out, one which was proving very tricky for Vincenz Priessnitz, the Württemberg government decided to establish in their country a sanatorium adhering to the Priessnitz model, requesting testimonials from the royal court in Vienna. Based on these, a license to operate the spa on a permanent basis was finally issued in 1838.
The very same year, Priessnitz began to construct a spacious new therapy building. The year 1839 was the undisputed peak of the spa’s operation during Priessnitz’s time, with over 1,500 patients seeking treatment at Gräfenberg. Indeed, even 120 physicians from throughout Europe came to the facility to study Priessnitz’s methods, who then returned home to set up hydrotherapy spas that followed these principles.
Later development of the spa
After the death of Priessnitz, Dr Josef Schindler (1814-1890) became, at the request of Priessnitz's widow Zofie, a worthy successor to his predecessor. An excellent physician, Schindler owned a hydrotherapy institute that adhered to Priessnitz's methodology in Potocna in the Jizera Mountains - the first Czech institute of its kind.
In 1853, he took over Gräfenberg, remaining the head of the spa for 38 years. As managing such a vast institute proved rather too much for one person, a board of spa trustees was set up that was led by Dr Schindler and four of Priessnitz's heirs. The original methods espoused by Priessnitz were supplemented with scientific knowledge and aspects of modern medicine, especially those concerning physiology and pathological anatomy. During the period of Dr Schindler’s charge, Gräfenberg witnessed yet more spa structures undergo development.
Gräfenberg attained global excellence under the leadership of chief surgeon Dr Josef Reinhold (1885-1947). A brilliant psychiatrist and psychologist, he managed to combine Priessnitz's heritage with the latest scientific advances. Dr Reinhold ushered in treatment of various neuroses, and under his management the institute evolved into a world-renowned psychiatric and neurological centre offering exceptional diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. At this time, it was namely wealthy clients that visited the spa, journeying from across Europe, whilst some came from as far as America and Canada. With the imminent advent of WWII, Dr Reinhold was forced to flee to Poland in 1938 due to racial issues, where he was later arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Having miraculously survived this ordeal, he returned to Spa Jesenik in 1946, running the practice until his sudden death a year later.
Indeed, in the inter-war period, the spa’s facilities were used for the rehabilitation of wounded German soldiers, whilst some sections were later seized to house children from bombed German cities.
After 1945, the future of the spa looked uncertain. However, the staff at Gräfenberg gradually managed to maintain the spa’s activities, with treatment methods focusing on neuropsychiatric disorders and - to a lesser extent - on eliminating the consequences of poisoning by heavy metals, although the chief activities of the spa involved treating respiratory diseases. During the 1980s, an average of 8,000 patients per year underwent therapy at Jesenik.