Life and Times
One of the earliest promoters of raw-food diets was the Swiss doctor Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner  (born 22 August 1867 in Aarau, Switzerland; died 24 January 1939.)
Max’s father, Heinrich Bircher, had been a notary public in Aarau, Switzerland. His mother was Berta Krüsi. The family was relatively well-off until a financial bond that his father guaranteed went bad, affecting the family finances. Still, Max was able to attend the University of Zurich to study medicine. There, from a tutor, August Forel, he learnt hypnosis and acquired Forel’s stand against alcohol, and he became interested in the various theories about nutrition and dietetics already being debated at the time. Some theories emphasized meats (such as those by Baron Justus von Liebig, who believed all human energy came from meat); some emphasized vegetarianism (such as Seventh Day Adventism.) Max’s interest in vegetarianism would evolve into an interest in uncooked food.
After graduation, Max worked for a while as a general practitioner doctor in a working class area of Zurich, then he took time off to travel and learn more. He went to Berlin to learn the water-cure methods of Sebastian Kneipp, then visited Heinrich Lahmann’s clinic near Dresden to learn about the dietetic therapy at the clinic, and then went to Vienna to hear lectures on hydrotherapy by Wilhelm Wintemitz.
When Max returned to Zurich, he closed his general practice and opened a clinic for physical therapy, hydrotherapy and electrotherapy. He called the clinic, “Lebendige Kraft” (Vital Force.) The clinic was small, with only seven beds, but it was in an affluent part of Zurich in order to get the attention of people who would be able to afford some of the therapies he was interested in.
His ideas were solidifying by this point in time. He had come to view raw foods as still holding vital nutrition in them from “solar light energy.” In his view, meat was the poorest way of getting this, as the energy was lost both through the animal having eaten the food, and then the flesh of the animal being cooked. He presented his medical ideas in 1900 to a local medical association. They did not react well and labelled him a quack. His ideas about solar nutrition pretty much destroyed any reputation he’d had as an academic.
Still, his ideas started to gain a following amongst the general population, and he pressed on. In 1903, he published a book called “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.”)
And, within a year, such was the demand for his therapies, that he had to expand the clinic. In 1904, he moved it to the outer edges of Zurich up on the hill called Zürichberg, next to woods, and close to the Dolder Grand Hotel where he could attract affluent guests to his clinic. He renamed the clinic to “Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft” (Vital Force Sanitarium.)
Over the ensuing years, the sanitarium would attract well-known people such as Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Yehudi Menuhin, Golda Meir and Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann, though, wasn’t keen on the place, and called it a “health jail” (“Hygienisches Zuchthaus.”) The sanitarium came to be home base for his influence. He promoted his ideas through a monthly journal called “der Wendepunkt”, printed and sold brochures and self-help books, and did exhibits at various places.
The sanitarium staff called Bircher-Benner “Dr. Senior.”
Max developed an eating and living regime he called the Ordnungstherapie (order therapy.) You would get up at 6 am, have a walk before breakfast, spend most of the day outside working or walking, retire to bed at 9pm, and go to sleep by 9:30. The regime also included dance, music, massages, sun baths, and cold showers.
The core, though, of his Ordnungstherapie was diet. You would not consume alcohol, coffee, chocolate or tobacco, and would eat raw food and raw carbohydrates instead of cooked food and meat. He preached against commercial processed foods. He didn’t like commercially processed milk on principle, but used it for the sake of hygiene for his patients. When cooking had to happen, he allowed steaming (rather than boiling) or slow cooking over low heat. He avoided prescribing drugs wherever possible.
His sisters, Alice Bircher and Berta Brupbacher-Bircher, transformed his ideas into recipes and menus for use at the clinic.
Every meal would start with a small dish of his muesli (also called at the time Birchermüesli), which was essentially grated whole apple with a very small amount of nuts, milk and oats. People who followed his beliefs strictly were called “Miislis.”
A typical meal at the sanitarium would be:
- a starter of muesli or fresh fruit;
- a main course of a raw vegetable platter, consisting perhaps of chopped leaves and grated roots;
- a small cooked dish, often vegetarian but not always;
- a dessert.
In 1927, he finally declared publicly that he had personally given up meat entirely.
By the late 1920s, his ideas had attained popularity amongst ordinary people, and was seen as an authority in less conventional, homeopathic medical circles of the time.
Max idealized a pre-modern rural past, and felt that ill-health was owing to industrialization. He hated being seen as a quack, and wanted to be recognized as a legitimate scientist. He felt vindicated in the 1930s by the discovery of Vitamin C and other nutrients in fresh fruits and vegetables (though to be fair, the emerging research findings contradicted his teachings as often as they vindicated them. The research was based on actual chemical analysis, while his beliefs were founded on observations as much as anything.)
Max married an Elisabeth Benner (1872-1945) in 1899. The couple would have two children: a daughter, Ruth Kunz-Bircher, and a son named Ralph (1899-1990.)
Max knew of the work of John Harvey Kellogg in America, who was 15 years older than him. He ordered a medicinal bath from Kellogg that Kellogg had developed, and sent Ralph to intern at Kellogg’s Battle Creek Institute.
Max died in 1939 of a heart attack.
The sanitarium would run until 1994, being managed by his children Ralph and Ruth, and grandchildren, Franklin Emil Bircher (1896-1988) and Willy Alfred Bircher (1898-1970), as well as a niece, Dagmar Liechti-von Brosch (1911-1993.)
 Max was born Bircher, but when he married in 1899, he added his wife’s name, Benner, to become 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.
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.