Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Leysin, Switzerland: Alpine retreat with a public health history

Leysin, Switzerland: Centre of tuberculosis treatment in the early 20th century

About an hour and a half from Geneva, nestled at the foot of the Berneuse mountains in Canton Vaud, lays the quiet village of Leysin. History records that the village originated in 515 AD and chose its particular location as a means of avoiding robbers who trolled the gorges and valleys between Montreux and the foothills of the Bernese Highlands after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Dents du Midi, as seen from Leysin, Switzerland

In the 12th century, Leysin was acquired by the Duke of Savoy and the first historical record of the area dates back to 1276. By 1445, the village built its first church, which is still part of the main village today. In 1475, as a result of the Burgundy Wars, the Canton of Bern acquired Aigle district and with it, Leysin. The village achieved a level of independence and freedom from servitude in the early 1500s when it elected its first general council and mayors.

In matters of commerce, Leysin was largely dependent on agriculture and dairy farming for their existence. Eventually, they began growing and harvesting wheat, vegetables, and fruits, making them nearly self-sufficient. Leysin also became a wine-producing area and visitors today can still see beautiful vineyards mounting the hills and terraces in the valleys below.

View of Lake Geneva / Lac Leman from the top of Berneuse
In 1789, Thomas Malthus, a British political economist, wrote about Leysin in his book, “Essay Upon the Principles of Population.” In it, he compared average life expectancy in Leysin (61 years) with other Europeans and theorized that the people of Leysin lived longer because of the climate and isolated location of the village. The only way to reach Leysin was via a 4 km footpath up the mountain from the valley floor. As a result, Leysin was not affected by communicable diseases that were prone to take the lives of other Europeans.

As Leysin became known to the outside world, people from the valley began sending their children up the mountain to cure various diseases and ailments. This influx of people made it necessary to establish an easier route to the village and a road was built between 1837 and 1875. The first recorded tourist to travel to Leysin for health reasons was a young German who arrived in January 1873.

Broad porches allowed
TB patients to soak up
Leysin's famous sunshine.
Thirty years later, Leysin achieved international fame with the arrival of Dr August Rollier. He theorized that the sun had curative qualities for bone and joint tuberculosis and he advocated exposing patients to as much sun as possible. Given Leysin’s unique location – the village is situated on the south side of the Berneuse mountain facing the Rhone Valley and receives sunshine from early morning to late afternoon – the air is thin, humidity is low, it is shielded from cold winds, and the sun penetrates more effectively making it an ideal locale for treating tuberculosis. As a result of this, Leysin became a tuberculosis centre and Dr Rollier was physician-in-charge for 37 clinics.

Růžena Zátková in Leysin
In 1919, a young artist in the Futurist movement named Růžena Zátková travelled to Leysin for exactly the type of treatment Dr Rollier was offering. A contemporary of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, and possibly even Coco Chanel, Růžena was a Czech-born artist whose art evolved from Classicalism to Futurism over the short, but dynamic span of 15 years. Sadly, despite Dr Rollier’s therapies, Růžena died of tuberculosis in Leysin in 1923 at the very young age of 38. She was my partner’s great-grandmother.

By 1930, nearly 6,000 people were living in Leysin – around 240 people earned their living through agriculture and 3,000 were tuberculosis patients. With the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its successful application, not long after World War II the era of “taking the airs” for tuberculosis came to a fairly abrupt end in the village. Many of the clinics shut down. Some of them were repurposed as schools or hotels, but many more were also left completely vacant.

Today, Leysin’s main industry is tourism and winter sports – and it’s well worth visiting for a quick, quiet weekend getaway – but as we spent time in the clear mountain air and learned about the history of the town, I couldn’t help wondering if one day Leysin will have a resurgence as a centre for disease treatment and therapy. With antimicrobial resistance on the rise, will the day arrive where we will again go to towns like Leysin to rest and hopefully survive from diseases that were once treatable?

Leysin and its Past. Bureau du Tourisme. Leysin, Switzerland. http://www.leysin.ch

Pomajzlová, Alena. Růžena: Story of the Painter Růžena Zátková. Written with the support of a grant by the Czech Science Foundation, 2011.

Thanks to Ruth Brennwald, Librarian at the Swiss Hotel Management School for fact-checking and providing additional information.

Photo credits:
Leysin, the Dents du Midi, Lake Geneva, and Broad porches by Janet M. Kincaid.

Růžena Zátková in Leysin from a private collection, photo reproduction by Maya Photography / Maya Lucchitta, great-granddaughter of Růžena.

All rights reserved.


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Interesting, and a lovely place to recuperate, or maybe only survive.

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