Today, 130 years have passed from the birth of Jónas Kristjánsson, MD, a pioneer in naturopathic medicine and the chief instigator for the establishment of the Icelandic Nature Health Society and its Rehabilitation and Health Clinic in Hveragerdi which started operating in July 1955. He was born at Snaeringsstadir in Svínadalur on 20th September 1870 and passed away in his office at his Clinic on 3rd April 1960.
In 1881, when Jónas was only 11 years of age, his mother, aged 40, died, leaving her husband and eight children. The loss of his mother encouraged Jónas to become a physician and to dedicate his life and energy to care for other people’s suffering. Through his drive and perseverance he reached his goal and completed his medical studies in 1901. The same year he married Hansína Benediktsdóttir, the daughter of Benedikt Kristjánsson, pastor at Grenjadarstadur, who made every effort to assist his young nephew in educating himself.
The young doctor and his wife first settled in eastern Iceland, mostly residing at Brekka in Fljótsdalur. Jónas quickly gained respect and favour for his work and was considered one of Iceland's best surgeons at the time. In 1911 he was appointed district medical officer at Saudárkrókur, gaining the good will of his contemporaries, many of the local older generation recollecting him with warmth and respect. His heart was bent on everything that involved progress and he was widely active in any positive projects. He was elected to the Althing for a while, a period he said had been the most boring period of his life and a waste of time. He played a part in the construction of the communal waterworks for the municipality, was one of the founders of its progressive society, serving as its president, as well as a local scout club Andvari in 1922, and the local tobacco abstinence society in 1929, thus becoming an instigator in tobacco abstinence in Iceland, one of his many achievements. However, his greatest accomplishment was to successfully introduce a travel ban over Holtavörduheidi, the main route of travel from the south of Iceland to the north, while the bubonic plague raged in the country.
Jónas resigned from his position as district medical officer in 1938 when he moved to Reykjavík. His children had already left the family nest; their two daughters, Ásta and Gudbjörg Birkis, are still alive.
It has been said the Jónas's real career began when he had resigned from his job as a public official when he was almost 70 years of age and moved to the south of Iceland. During the last 20 years of his life he worked at introducing naturopathy, something that had fascinated him during his travels abroad. He first presented it in 1923 during a meeting of the Saudárkrókur progressive society. He established the Icelandic Nature Health Society in Saudárkrókur on 5th July 1937. He wished to improve his nation's health and quality of life through a healthy way of life. While he did not preach any complicated methods, he explained various choices in diets, physical activities and general ways of life. All his emphasis involved health and how to increase the human body's resistance to diseases. He often met with apathy and was subjected to harsh criticism, i.a. from his colleagues who made light of his philosophy of the interplay between people's state of health and a healthy way of life. It is informative that in those times tobacco was advertised in the Icelandic Medical Journal. Today we can read the words of Jónas Kristjánsson in the policy of the World Health Organization of Health for Everybody in the year 2000.
In a commemorative article on Jónas, Björn L. Jónsson, MD, his close associate and later chief physician of the Health Clinic said: "If Jónas Kristjánsson had lived a traditional life he would be remembered as one of Iceland's most popular and best physicians of his time and an all-round generous person. But now these qualities tend to be almost forgotten due to the pioneering work to which he dedicated the latter part of his long life."
The message preached by Jónas Kristjánsson was far from being unrealistic daydreams. The core of his health evangelization, as his theories were sometimes called pejoratively, was his belief, or rather his conviction, that with a responsible and healthy way of life people could have a healthy and successful life. This conviction of his was based on solid logic and well-founded substantiation. And this was presented by a humanitarian of great integrity, an idealist in the best meaning of the word.
In Jónas's address which was published in the first issue of Heilsuvernd (Public Health), the magazine of the Health Clinic in 1946, he said: "Naturopathic policy maintains that most diseases result from people violating the principles or conditions on which perfect health is based. Future science undoubtedly will prove this statement to be true when the world's scientists will be fortunate enough to seek the causes of diseases instead of concentrating almost entirely on the maladies themselves. The shaping of a healthy and efficient society requires mentally and physically healthy citizens. While a correct way of life and proper education is the foundation of health, health care and hygiene need to be started before people get sick. The nation's youth need to be educated about the principles of a healthy life. All reasonable people, good sons and daughters of our country, must consider it to be their hallowed duty to protect their health for the benefit of their country. We must all have the goal of departing a better world than the one we were born into."
Jónas Kristjánsson was far ahead of his time in fighting for a healthy way of life for his compatriots. He did his utmost to convince people that health must be given priority and they should adopt the motto of the Icelandic Nature Health Society: "Be responsible for your health."
Let us honour the memory of the physician Jónas Kristjánsson.
Gunnlaugur K. Jónsson.
President of NHAI – Nature and Health Association of Iceland
Wednesday 20.september 2000