The Long and Important Global History of Wellness

December 18, 2020 | Wellness Seeker

We talk a lot about wellness being a holistic system that strives to create harmony between body, mind and spirit. At ThermaSol, we’ve been at this since 1958, when we invented the first residential steam shower generator. The wellness industry had just begun taking shape in the United States at that time due in large part to the writings and leadership of an informal network of physicians and others who started to talk about wellness as an important aspect of self-care and health.

By the time we hit the 1960s, interest in yoga and spirituality had really taken hold-even Dan Rather wanted to know more. Because so much of what we provide with our products has its roots in ancient practices, we wanted to take an even deeper look back – way back – to honor where we came from and how far we’ve come.

In The Beginning

3,000-1,500 BC: Ayurveda, which originated in ancient India more than 5,000 years ago, is probably the world’s oldest system of natural medicine. Ayurveda means “science of life,” and it stems from the ancient body of spiritual teachings known as the Vedas (spiritual text). Yoga and meditation are the most important components, and it’s easy to see that both of these practices continue to be popular all around the world. We recommend combining steam with yoga for additional health benefits, which we included in our previous blog post.

3,000 – 2,000 BC: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one of the world’s oldest systems of medicine, develops. Influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, TCM applies a holistic perspective to achieving health and wellbeing, by cultivating harmony in one’s life. We can give this system credit for some of the following practices: acupuncture, herbal medicine, qi gong and tai chi.

500 BC: Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates – is possibly the first physician to focus on preventing sickness instead of simply treating disease. Known as the “Father of Medicine,” he espoused the health benefits of diet, lifestyle and environmental factors. This holistic view – taking care of the whole system is also excellent advice!

50 BC: Even the ancient Romans emphasized disease prevention, adopting the Greek belief that illness was a product of diet and lifestyle. Ancient Rome’s highly developed public health system (with its extensive system of aqueducts, sewers and public baths) helped prevent the spreading of germs and maintained a healthier population. Fun fact: their systems of aqueducts and sewers is still used today!

Graphic Credit:

17th century and beyond

Earliest use of the word Wellness in English
1650s: The use of the word “wellness” in the English language – meaning the opposite of “illness” or the “state of being well or in good health” – dates to the 1650s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 19th century new intellectual movements, spiritual philosophies and medical practices proliferated in the United States and Europe. Invention of the microscope was a consequence of improved understanding during the Renaissance. Prior to the 19th century, humorism (also known as humoralism) was thought to explain the cause of disease but it was gradually replaced by the germ theory of disease, leading to effective treatments and even cures for many infectious diseases. A number of alternative healthcare methods that focus on self-healing, holistic approaches, and preventive care – including homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy – were founded during this era and gained widespread popularity in both Europe and the United States.

1790s: German physician Christian Hahneman develops Homeopathy, a system that uses natural substances to promote the body’s self-healing response.

1860s: German priest Sebastian Kneipp promotes his “Kneipp Cure,” combining hydrotherapy with herbalism, exercise and nutrition. The New Thought movement also emerges, around Phineas Quimby’s theories of mentally-aided healing. Today the Kneipp system is alive and well.

1870s: Andrew Taylor Still develops Osteopathy, a holistic approach grounded in manipulating muscles and joints.

1880s: Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner pioneers nutritional research, advocating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables. The YMCA launches as one of the world’s first wellness organizations, with its principle of developing mind, body and spirit.

1890s: Daniel David Palmer develops Chiropractic, focused on the body’s structure and functioning.

1900s: John Harvey Kellogg (director of the Battle Creek, Michigan Sanitorium, which closed in 1933) espouses a healthy diet, exercise, fresh air, hydrotherapy and “learning to stay well.” Naturopathy, focused on the body’s ability to heal itself through dietary and lifestyle change, herbs, massage and joint manipulation.

1910: The Carnegie Foundation’s Flexner Report, a critique of North America’s medical education system for lack of standards and scientific rigor, questions the validity of all forms of medicine other than biomedicine, resulting in most alternative systems (homeopathy, naturopathy, etc.) being dropped from mainstream medical education, and setting the stage for our modern disease-oriented, evidence-based medicine.

Where We Are Today

Our modern use of the word “wellness” dates to the 1950s and a seminal – but little known – work by physician Halbert L. Dunn, called High-Level Wellness (published 1961). Although Dunn’s work received little attention initially, his ideas were later embraced in the 1970s by an informal network of individuals in the U.S., including Dr. John Travis, Don Ardell, Dr. Bill Hettler, and others.

These “fathers of the wellness movement” created their own comprehensive models of wellness, developed new wellness assessment tools, and wrote and spoke actively on the concept. Travis, Ardell, Hettler and their associates were responsible for creating the world’s first wellness center, developing the first university campus wellness center, and establishing the National Wellness Institute and National Wellness Conference in the U.S. Today, there is actually a Halbert L. Dunn award for work done in the wellness arena.

From 1980-2000, the wellness movement begins to gain momentum, and is taken more seriously by the medical, academic and corporate worlds. For instance, Hettler’s National Wellness Institute caught the attention of Tom Dickey and Rodney Friedman, who then established the monthly Berkeley Wellness Letter (1984), designed to compete with the Harvard Medical School Health Letter, pointedly using “wellness” in the title as contrast. This influential academic publication presented evidence-based articles on wellness approaches, while also debunking numerous health fads.

More medical establishment validation: in 1991 the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established, as part of the government-funded National Institutes of Health.

More government-sponsored programs to promote healthier lifestyles launched in U.S. cities/states. The modern concept of wellness also spread to Europe, where the German Wellness Association (Deutscher Wellness Verband, DWV) and the European Wellness Union (Europäischen Wellness Union, EWU) were founded in 1990.

At the latter end of the 20th century, many corporations began developing workplace wellness programs. The fitness and spa industries globally experienced rapid growth. And an ever-growing line-up of celebrities and self-help experts started bringing wellness concepts to a mainstream audience. However, despite all these disparate developments, this momentum had not yet coalesced under the formal banner of a “wellness industry.”

And So…

Here we are today – in 2020, the recipients of thousands of years of information and innovations all for the purpose of maintaining healthy bodies and minds. We wonder what Hippocrates or Dr. Christian Hahneman might think of ThermaSol’s smart shower with steam, tranquility scenes and chromatherapy. We think they’d approve actually…we really do.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our ThermaSol community and be the first to know about our new arrivals, exclusive updates and more.


Recent Posts