Back to overview

Unlicensed Practice: A Lay Healer in Rural Switzerland

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Publication date 2016
Author Unterkircher Alois, Ritzmann Iris,
Project Ländliche Heilerpraxis in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts
Show all

Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Clio Medica. Perspectives in Medical Humanities
Volume (Issue) 96
Page(s) 230 - 252
Title of proceedings Clio Medica. Perspectives in Medical Humanities


This comment on the alleged malpractice of medical laypersons is consistent with a number of similar complaints about “quacks”, “dilettantes” or “dabblers”. The main criticism, in each case, was that such persons with their doubtful therapies aggravated rather than improved the patients’ state of health. As if that was not reprehensible enough, they took away customers from the “true” medical experts (physicians, surgeons, apothecaries). What is surprising is not the fact that such criticism is expressed in a practice journal but who expressed it: it was penned by a certain Gottfried Wachter from Hugelshofen, a village in the northeast of Switzerland that, around 1830, counted 800 inhabitants. In the first half of the 19th century Wachter was active as a lay healer in this remote community, away from busy trade routes or flourishing commercial centres. It is not a “doctor medicinae”, that is, a practitioner ranking highly in the medical hierarchy, who is complaining here about “quacks”, but a healer who had no diploma or certificate and who stood on the lowest rung of that hierarchy. Wachter’s only credentials consisted of a licence issued by the Thurgau health authorities granting him permission to carry out a restricted range of medical treatments. It is remarkable that this healer, who had no academic education or practical training, expressed such disdain for the medical activities of persons to whom he was much closer from a training point of view than he was to physicians. In summary it can be said that Wachter’s medical lay-services satisfied a demand that hardly changed in rural areas in the first half of the 19th century. A crucial factor for members of the local population, in choosing a practitioner, was probably that he could be reached within a radius of five kilometres. Many of Wachter’s clients were probably culturally close to or personally connected with him, but he also had a few patients of higher rank. His frequent references to previous treatments by other practitioners or to self-medication suggest that there were patients who came to him as a last resort. Analysis of the therapies he applied reveals definite developments in this respect in the course of his professional biography. With the years, Wachter’s activities coincided increasingly with those traditionally assigned to the artisanal surgeons. A certain focus on “illnesses” relating to sexuality, sexual organs and reproduction is also discernible.