Dr. Bircher-Benner was a visionary Swiss physician and pioneer of bioregulatory medicine. He dedicated his life to natural self-healing therapies and was an early advocate of a raw plant-based diet. He created a unique clinic that featured numerous forms of physical therapies and detoxification treatments. He believed that finding spiritual peace was key to a healthy life and mind. 

Maximilian Oskar was born on August 22nd, 1867, in Aarau, Switzerland, the capital of the northern Swiss canton of Aargau. He was the second son of Heinrich Bircher, a notary of the public in Aarau, and Berta Bircher-Krüsi. A major fire in Aarau frightened Max’s pregnant mother Berta so violently that she gave birth to her son two months early. It was a miracle Max survived his birth as incubators were unknown at that time. Unfortunately, young Max was born with a heart defect that caused him a lifetime of health problems. From an early age, Max was keenly interested in diseases and knew that he wanted to study medicine. The family was relatively well-off until a financial bond that his father guaranteed went bad, affecting the family finances. Fortunately, due to the generosity of family friends, Max was financially able to attend the University of Zurich to study medicine. 

Black and White Photo of Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner
 symbol of Swiss flag

The absorption and organization of sunlight, the essence of life, is derived almost exclusively through plants. Since light is the driving force of every cell in our bodies, this is why we need green plants.

-Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, MD

Max excelled in medical college and took interest in many new developing areas of health care. His studies also included what then was naturopathy, hydrotherapy, and dietetics. In 1891, he received his doctorate in medicine with his thesis on the nevus pilosus. He was greatly impressed by the physiologist Justus Gaule (1849-1939) and by the psychiatrist Auguste Forel. Forel convinced Max that alcohol consumption was detrimental to both physical and mental health. This viewpoint of alcohol followed Max his entire life.

After receiving his doctorate in medicine, Max continued his interest in the various theories about nutrition and dietetics, which was being heavily debated at the time. Some theories emphasized meats (such as those by Baron Justus von Liebig, who believed all human energy came from meat). Others emphasized vegetarianism, such as Seventh-Day Adventism. Max’s interest in vegetarianism would eventually evolve into an avid interest in plant-based raw food (fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, etc.) which he considered living, vital foods. 

In 1891, at the age of 24, Max opened general medicine practice in a working-class area of Zurich. Two years later he married an affluent pharmacist's daughter, Elisabeth Benner. Max changed his name to Bircher-Benner, adding Benner the surname of his wife.

The young doctor treated all sorts of illnesses but periodically took time off to travel and study with other physicians in Europe. He traveled to Berlin to learn the hydrotherapy (water-cure) methods of Sebastian Kneipp, then visited Heinrich Lahmann’s clinic near Dresden to learn more about dietetics, and then went to Vienna to hear lectures on hydrotherapy by Wilhelm Wintemitz.

In 1897, Max closed his general medicine practice in Zurich-Aussersihl and opened a private clinic for natural medicine that included dietetics, physical therapy, hydrotherapy, and electrotherapy. He called the clinic, Lebendige Kraft (Vital Force.) The clinic was small, with only seven beds, but was in an affluent part of Zurich, with patrons that could afford such unique and novel therapies. His clinic was designed to help patients rethink their diets and lifestyles, and to bring them into harmony with the "forces of nature" - air, water, sun, and the earth. 

Shortly after opening his clinic Max became ill with a severe case of jaundice that robbed him of appetite. Sitting at his bedside, his wife cut up an apple and fed him a small slice. During the next two or three days, he managed to consume more apples, his appetite began to return, and he soon recovered. A month later, a colleague told him about one of his patients that was unable to digest any food at all. He tried giving her a dish made from a recipe of the ancient Pythagoreans, a puree of raw fruits mixed with honey and goat's milk. After a time, he added some vegetables to the puree, and a few weeks later, she fully recovered. His personal experience with a raw plant-based diet and hearing other stories of the healing power of uncooked fruit and vegetables inspired Max to utilize a plant-based raw diet for his patients.

Another dietetic influence on Max was an encounter with a shepherd during a hike with his wife in the Alps. He was impressed both by the shepherd's active lifestyle and the simple main dish, composed of coarse whole grain, milk, apple, and a little honey that the man served them. This was the forbear of muesli, which, with the addition of seeds and nuts, was later to become Max’s claim to fame. Max’s muesli recipe and clinical therapies parallel John Harvey Kellogg and his Battle Creek Michigan Sanitarium and cereal recipes. 

Photo of Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner drinking tea

Max Bircher-Benner, Birchermüesli essend.

Medizinhistorisches Institut und Museum der Universität Zürich, 

Archiv. PN 11.04.01.17. (Public domain)

The Father of Bircher Muesli

 

Dr. Bircher-Benner became convinced of the healing powers of fruit and vegetables and conducted numerous nutritional experiments with raw vegetables on himself, his family, and patients. He developed the now internationally famous Bircher Muesli. Max originally called his diet apple dish Spys. Soon it gained the vernacular name Bircher muesli. Müesli means 'little mush' in German, which is a combination of grated, mashed apple, oats, condensed milk, lemon juice, and nuts The main ingredient then was a raw apple, rather than the cereal or yogurt 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.

Max came to view raw plant foods as possessing a vital “energy nutrition” derived from “solar light.” In his view, meat possessed the least solar energy, as the energy was lost because the animal consumed the grass and the meat was cooked. He writes, “we are not fed by calories but by light quanta.” He presented his medical ideas in 1900 to a local medical association. Most physicians did not react well and labeled his raw food ideas as “unscientific.” Thus, his concept of solar nutrition stored in food somewhat damaged the reputation he had as an academic. 

 

Unwavering, Max continued to utilize a raw plant-based diet on his patients and demonstrated dramatic improvements in their health. He found that his patients had fewer digestive complaints as well as improvement in their aches and pains. Thus, meat was eliminated (or almost eliminated, depending on one's preference) and more than half the total food served at his clinic was raw vegetables and fruits. Daily exercise and plenty of sleep were also prescribed. Patients’ health improved and the sanatorium became so popular that Max was forced to move to a bigger location.

Bircher Muesli Recipe:

(with almond or sesame puree for one person)
 

8g oats
3 tbsp water
1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp almond or sesame puree (organic almond puree)
1 tbsp honey
200g apples
1 tbsp hazelnuts or almonds, grated 


Soak the oats for 12 hours. Using a whisk, combine the lemon juice, puree, water, and honey to a creamy consistency, add the oats and grate the apple direct into the mixture using the Bircher grater while frequently stirring so that the Bircher muesli remains appetizingly white. Sprinkle the nuts over the top and serve immediately- never leave to sit.

Black and White Photo of Kitchen with workers

Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft

 

Due to increased demand for his therapies, in 1904, Max moved his clinic east of Zurich up on the hill called Zürichberg, close to the Dolder Grand Hotel where he could attract affluent guests. He renamed the clinic Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft (Vital Force Sanitarium). It opened when the “life reform movement” had evolved as a reaction against 19th-century industrialization in Switzerland. For Max, industrial civilization was the epitome of disorder, while nature was the essence of good. While the doctor largely dispensed with medication, he appreciated technological progress, and used electricity for sweat baths, and was one of the first in Switzerland to use an X-ray machine for diagnoses.

He encouraged people of good health to eat approximately 50% raw plant-based foods daily, and for those with poor health to eat a 100% raw plant-based diet. Max’s sisters, Alice Bircher, and Berta Brupbacher-Bircher prepared many creative recipes using raw fruits and vegetables to help the diet be more appealing. With their help and delicious recipes, his sanatorium gained enormous popularity. In 1906 Alice published a cookbook: Dietetic Menus and Meatless Cooking Recipes.

Max soon expanded the clinic to accommodate those “less well-off.”  These patients rendered services in return in the form of help with housekeeping and gardening. Many illustrious personalities suffering from the most varied ailments came to Max at his Sanitorium. Among such personalities were the Tsars Nicolas II, members of European royal families, Tunisia President Habib Bourguiba, Rainer Maria Rilke, Author Hermann Hesse, Sir Stafford Cripps (Churchill's Minister of Foreign Affairs), Golda Meir, Thomas Mann, Yehudi Menuhin, Helena Rubinstein, among many others. 

Despite the acclaim given to his sanatorium and the popularity of Bircher muesli, Max had his critics. His ideas of dietetics and vegetables and fruits being solar charged were denounced by many. Essentially, Max was up against traditional meat and potatoes advocates. Because of the persistent belief that "real men eat meat," some claimed that Dr. Bircher-Benner's new ideas amounted to a “feminization of the traditional Swiss-German meal.”

Making Muesli - The kitchen of Dr Bircher-Benner's sanatorium in the 1920s
Source: Bircher-Benner Archiv, Universität Zürich, Medizinhistorisches Institut, (public domain)

Black and white photo of multi-level house on a hill - sanatorium

Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft located on the Zürichberg, a wooded hill rising to 679 m overlooking Lake Zürich, east of Zürich.
Das Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft am noch unverbauten Zürichberg im Eröffnungsjahr 1904. Medizinhistorisches Institut und Museum der Universität Zürich, Archiv. IN 47.08.01.01 (public domain).

Black and white photo sanatorium on a road

Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft Later Built Additions

Ordnungstherapie (Order Therapy)

 

Max developed an eating and living regime he called the Ordnungstherapie. One would arise at 6 am, have a walk before breakfast, spend most of the day outside in active gardening, or walk in the nearby woods, eat at fixed times, and retire to bed at 9 pm. The regime also included dance, music, massages, sun baths, and cold showers. His muesli recipe was served in the morning and evening together with whole-grain bread, butter, and herbal tea. Meals included mostly raw vegetables and sometimes a fruit dessert.

 

Patients were not allowed to consume alcohol, coffee, chocolate, or tobacco while they were being treated. He preached against commercially processed foods. Max disliked pasteurized milk and believed it was denatured but used it for the sake of hygiene for his patients. When cooking vegetables and meat, he allowed steaming (rather than boiling) or slow cooking over low heat. 

 

In Dr. Bircher-Benner's eyes, people at the beginning of the 20th century suffered from the civilization-disease of a disorderly lifestyle. He saw the root cause of most illnesses resulting from a violation of the biological laws of order - living in an erratic routine, eating poorly, and carrying mental stress. Thus, order therapy also entailed a deep psychological understanding of the mental causes of one’s disorder. For Max, order therapy required the full enlightenment of the patient, so they can actively contribute to their self-healing.

Dr. Bircher-Benner often lectured on unhealthy diets causing disease and generally attributed it to the following:

  • the nutrient (vital energy) quality reduction of cooking (particularly with high temperatures.)

  • the lack of living plant-based food in the diet.

  • excess protein in the diet (particularly from meat.)

  • excessive use of table salt, refined flour, animal fat, and sugar.

  • alcohol consumption. 

Max also recommended his patients use a medicinal bath developed by his contemporary American physician John Harvey Kellogg. Max knew of the work of Dr. Kellogg in America, who was 15 years older than him. He ordered this medicinal bath from Kellogg and sent his son Ralph to intern at Kellogg’s Battle Creek Institute.

 

During this time industrialization was rapidly occurring. Max strongly felt this resulted in people losing connection and harmony with nature. Utilizing gardening and the woods around the sanitarium, he encouraged patients to reconnect with nature.

Black and white photo victorian era patients eating in sanatorium cafe

Patients Eating at the Lebendige Kraft Sanatorium

Publication

 

In 1903, Max published “Brief fundamentals of nutritional therapy on the basis of the energetic tension in food” (“Kurze Grundziige der Erndhrungs-Therapie auf Grund der Energie-Spannung der Nahrung.”)

His nutritional therapy text was generally well-received by the public, though many physicians still criticized and belittled him. Max was an avid reader and researched extensively to find out why whole-raw-plant foods supported health so much better than traditional cooked cuisine centered in meat. He became convinced that the basic reason is that there is solar energy stored in whole fresh plants, whereas subjecting them to refining, cooking, smoking, and fermenting destroys this energy. Thus, in his book, he proposed that it was not the caloric energy of food but rather the solar-charged quantity of energy contained in fruits and vegetables that is crucial to maintaining health and recovering from illness. He explained the energy of raw, vegetal living cells from sunlight and called these vegetal cells light accumulators. Later he divided them into four categories, according to their biological affinity to photosynthesis. These four categories became the basis of his dietetics.

We also now know that raw vegetables provide a variety of secondary plant substances (phytochemicals) such as flavonoids, carotenoids, phytosterols, saponins, glucosinolates, polyphenols, proteinase inhibitors, terpenes, phytoestrogens, sulfides and others. Many of these compounds are partially or totally destroyed by excessive heat.

The experiments conducted by the biologist Alexander Gurwitsch in 1923 on the "mitogenetic light radiation" of the onion root and his postulate of a "morphogenetic field" reaffirmed Dr. Bircher-Benner’s thesis of stored light energy in food. Later many others vindicated Max’s works. Also, in 1930, scientists began to discover vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables. During the 20th century, it became possible to measure light accumulation and prove that solar light photons can potentize and vitalize living cells. Light therapy has rapidly developed, and research has demonstrated that photons activate numerous enzyme systems in plants and animals.

Black and white photo of physician assessing patient

A hydrotherapy body compress was one of the treatments

at the Lebendige Kraft Sanatorium

Book cover of Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner

Dr. Bircher-Benner writes of one of his dietetic lectures (translated): I dedicate the content of these three lectures to the sick and suffering who want to know where their distress came from and who still have enough determination and self-overcoming to take the path back to health shown here. I also dedicate it to my esteemed colleagues and all thinking and intelligent people who want to hear how the misery of ill health can be prevented. The fact that not one of the thousands of sick people whose distress I got to know, even after long preliminary treatment, knew why he had become ill and why his illness would not go away shows the astonishing lack of life and health knowledge of the people of our time up into the educated and learned classes.

In 1927, Max finally declared publicly that he had personally given up meat entirely and his diet became entirely plant-based.

In 1937 at the age of 69, he declined the appointment of Professor Ordinarius in Berlin's Hess Hospital primarily for political reasons. This time was the beginning of the Third Reich and Hitler’s planned invasion of Austria. Max was appalled at the Nazi treatment of Jews beginning in the early 1930s. As a Swiss citizen, he remained politically neutral.

Family

 

Max had four siblings:

  • Ernest Bircher (1866-1958) - lawyer.

  • Berta Luise Brupbacher-Bircher (Aarau, 1870–Zurich, 1951). From 1907 to 1944 she was housekeeping manager at the Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft. She wrote The turning point cookbook in 1927.

  • Emma Fanny Rieter-Bircher (June 22, 1874 to May 1, 1922) - dentist.

  • Alice von Brasch-Bircher (Aarau,1879–Livonia,1916). Mother of Dagmar Liechti-von Brasch. 1897-1907 housekeeping manager in the Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft. In 1906 she published a cookbook: Dietetic Menus and Meatless Cooking Recipes.

Black and White photo of Dr. Bircher-Benner and wife Elisabeth standing in the woods

Dr. Bircher-Benner's with Elisabeth his wife, c. 1930 

(Archiv für Medizingeschichte der Universität Zürich; photo A. & G. Zimmermann, Geneva). (Public domain)

Death and Legacy

 

Dr. Bircher-Benner died of a heart attack on January 24, 1939, at the age of 71 in Zurich. That same year the Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft was renamed the Bircher-Benner Clinic in his memory. His children Ralph and Ruth, and grandchildren, Franklin Emil Bircher (1896-1988) and Willy Alfred Bircher (1898-1970), as well as his niece, Dagmar Liechti-von Brosch (1911-1993) continued to run the clinic until 1980. It then passed into the possession of the Canton of Zurich. In 1994, the clinic was closed, and four years later the building was sold to Zürich Versicherungs-Gesellschaft. 

 

It has since been purchased by Zürich Financial Services and is named the Zürich Development Center founded in 1903. It is used for executive training and houses an extensive private art collection. The campus of the Zurich Development Center is made up of the original Bircher-Benner Clinic, its three chalets, and Dr. Bircher-Benner's private residence. The renovation of the site has left intact these historically protected buildings, and added a modern, flexible, new space. The original chalets and structures have been carefully preserved, updated, and complemented with new structures. 

Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner counts among the best-known and most influential Swiss physicians of the 20th century. He described his sanatorium as a "school of life" and an "effective instrument against the degeneration of the population from an unnatural way of life.” After his death, his dietary ideas were implemented at various medical centers such as the Children's Hospital in Zurich, the Rudolf Hess Hospital in Dresden, and the Royal Free Hospital in London. The Royal Free Hospital set up a department for the treatment of osteoarthritis patients using Bircher-Benner's dietary regime. His pioneering ideas of raw plant-based dietetics have now been adopted by numerous clinics throughout the world.

Photo of outdoor bronze bust of Dr. Bircher-Benner

Bronze Bust of Dr. Bircher-Benner by Georg Krämer, Bad Homburg

Resources

 

Melzer J, Melchart D, Saller R: „Entwicklung der Ordnungstherapie durch Bircher-Benner in der Naturheilkunde im 20. Jahrhundert“. Forschende Komplementärmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde 2004;11:293–303.

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Oskar_Bircher-Benner

 

Meyer-Renschhausen E, Wirz A: Dietetics, health reform and social order. Vegetarianism as a moral physiology: the example of Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867–1939). Medical History 1999;43:323–341. 

Wirz A: Die Moral auf dem Teller dargestellt an Leben und Werk von Max Bircher-Benner und John Harvey Kellog. Zürich, Chronos, 1993. 

A wonderful resource for the history of Dr. Bircher-Benner, his original recipe and his influence on the medical community written by Eberhard Wolff of the University of Zürich can be found here: http://www.zora.uzh.ch/40410/1/Wolff_Bircher-Benner.pdf

 

Wolff Eberhard. (ed): Lebendige Kraft. Max Bircher-Benner und sein Sanatorium im historischen Kontext. Baden, hier + jetzt, 2010.

 

Wolff Eberhard. Moderne Diätetik als präventive Selbsttechnologie: Zum Verhältnis von heteronomer und autonomer Selbstdisziplinierung zwischen Lebensreformbewegung und heutigem Gesundheitsboom; in Lengwiler E, Madarasz J (eds): Das präventive Selbst. Eine Kulturgeschichte moderner Gesundheitspolitik. Bielefeld, Transcript, 2010, pp 169– 201.

Wolff, Eberhard. A New Way of Living: The Creation of Muesli. Basel, Switzerland: Karger Gazette. October 2010, No. 71.

Wolff, Eberhard (ed): Lebendige Kraft. Max Bircher-Benner und sein Sanatorium im historischen Kontext. Baden, hier + jetzt, 2010.

https://www.zurichdevelopmentcenter.com/z/facility/history/

https://www.bircher-benner.com/en/home/