Article by Prof. Dr. Paul Buchner, Ischia, in the leading Swiss daily paper, Neue Ziircher Zeitung, of 17th March, 1950.
slightly edited and hypertext added by the Webmaster in 2001

A Swiss Health-Spa Physician on the Island of Ischia

Since Ischia has become the destination of so many Swiss holiday-makers in recent years, it might well be appropriate to rescue from oblivion a Swiss doctor for whom this island became an adopted home, and who was the spa-physician of international repute there for several decades. Indeed, one might reasonably claim that he closed that series of outstanding physicians with whose names the history of the thermal baths on the island is associated. If mention be made of Giovanni Elisio, to whom we owe the first description of the health-spas, which today are on everybody’s lips, or of Giulio Jasolino, the Neapolitan doctor of the sixteenth century who helped to revive their reputation, or of Andrea D’Aloisio, whose “L’infermo istruito” represents the Ischian health-spa guide of the eighteenth century, then one can hardly fail to mention J.E. Chevalley de Rivaz, who was the representative physician on the island around the middle of the previous century.

He was born in Vevey, in the canton Vaud, in 1801. As a son of well-off parents, he went to Paris in his teens in order to study medicine there. Involved, as he became, in the domestic political conflicts which at that time excited the populace under Louis xviii, he was compelled - the exact circumstances have not come down to us, unfortunately - to disappear for some time into a Trappist monastery, whose abbot not only gave him shelter but also took care of his further education. A qualified physician already in his twenty-first year, he was assigned to the French Legation in Naples, a circumstance which was decisive for his entire further career. Though he did return to Paris once, in 1827, so as to defend his thesis, which had meanwhile been completed, Naples and the gulf established a final hold over him, as over so many others who had come from the north.

The young doctor at the Legation established a practice in Naples, and in Casamicciola near the Gurgitello spring, which had been praised by physicians in ancient days as “manus Dei, liquor celeste, ancora della salute”, soon set up a sanatorium, which combined excellent medical care with a measure of comfort not to be found in any other place on the island. The gardens surrounding the “Maison de sante with their pergolas and orange trees - the latter a special treat to northern guests - bespoke the landlord’s fondness of plants. From the benches in the garden you had an excellent view of the steep slopes of the Epomeo, the dark green veil of chestnut woods and the sea, the other islands and the coast of the mainland. The sanatorium not only offered the necessary equipment for diverse balneotherapeutic and other medical treatments - well-off guests used to have the spa waters taken to the house in those times - but also boasted elegantly furnished lounges and reading rooms.

The book still survives today which bears the entries of the guests of the sanatorium from the year 1844 up to Chevalley’s death, that is to say for nearly twenty years. Its yellowed pages reveal to us the Swiss doctor’s illustrious and distinguished clientele, hailing from all parts of the globe, who usually stayed in the sanatorium for some time; often for two, three or even four months. Most numerous are the English, Americans and French and there is quite a sprinkling of Russians and Poles, but Rumanians, Belgians, Scandinavians, Swiss and Germans are also represented. Besides a host of nobility you come accross famous and notorious names such as Dumas or Bakunin, on turning the leaves; but all of them are full of praise, finding words of such exuberance for “les soins paternels, l’excessive obligeance, il disinteresse straordinario” of the landlord as far to exceed any of the usual phrases which are customary in such books. Gratitude has found poetic expression in English and French, and a young Italian artist who sought refuge there after having been afflicted and shaken in body and mind dedicated to the man he called “uomo inobliato, consolatore come l’Angelo di Dio” two songs panegyrising Ischia in more than 1000 lines.

Indeed, Chevalley de Rivaz was more than only a smooth, polyglot spa- physician for the refined and rich; he was a physician in the true sense of the word, a friend and adviser of his patients in all their needs. He maintained a free surgery in Naples for the impecunious, and when there was an outbreak of cholera in Ischia, in 1837, and the head of the Public Health Service sent him to Forio, he checked - together with the mayor of the town, who was killed during the operation - the epidemic with such selfless devotion that the grateful municipal authorities made him an honorary citizen and honoured him with a gold medal. He relentlessly advocated the demands of public health care and hygiene, and occasionally he gave vent to his indignation about the charlatanism and unscrupulousness of some of the Neapolitan doctors.

Publications on an influenza epidemic, on smallpox and vaccination, on cholera and syphilis, which latter was of especial interest to him, prove that he was not at all completely taken up by the practical execution of his profession. Naturally, one of his main concerns was the study of the numerous thermal springs, sudariums and hot sands of Ischia, and their effects on the human body. He scoured the island, as Jasolino had done before him, on his quest for springs which had been overlooked before, and he saw to the repair of such springs as had fallen into disuse. A fairly modest pamphlet, informing physicians as well as laymen about Ischia’s cures, was published in 1831 already; this was soon to evolve, however, into his “Description des eaux minero-thermales et des eluves de l’ile d’Ischia”, a book which went through innumerable editions and was, to all the world, the main source of information about the island, for a long time.

Even though most of the book is taken up with crenological and medical considerations, Chevalley de Rivaz here reveals himself, too, as a man with an open eye for everything, whose interest embraces a wide and varied field. He is perfectly at home in history and Graeco-Roman literature - even in his old age he commanded the Greek language to an unusual degree and he was able to declaim large parts from the Roman classics by heart -; he took no less an interest in what classical remains were to be found covered by the island’s soil, than in the plants it produced or the animals it nourished. Chevalley even found time to prepare an herbarium; and a catalogue he drew up for his herbarium survives to this day. Since as a physician he rated climatic conditions to have a major influence on the recovery of his patients, it is small wonder that he took a particular interest in the then young science of meteorology. He went so far as to equip a small observatory and he daily recorded barometric pressure, temperature, direction of the wind and relative humidity, and compared his data with those of Naples. A publication which he had planned on the climate of the island did not, unfortunately, come off, and his records, which would still be valuable to us today, have been lost.

When in 1852 and 1863 earthquakes shook Casamicciola Chevalley sent reports to the Academy of Naples and the Bollettino meteorologico dealing with the observations he had made on these occasions, and ending with the assurance that he would not leave his post and would record even the most inconspicuous of phenomena.

Naturally it was a great event for a man of such versatile interests, when in 1845 the seventh Italian Congress of Scholars was held in Naples. How well he must have felt in this illustrious society, among whom were a number of eminent representatives from abroad, such as Leopold von Buch, Owen, Pietet and others The perfect highlight to him, however, was an excursion the Congress members made to Capri and Paestum at the King’s invitation, on a paddle steamer made available by the navy. Chevalley very attractively protrayed this excursion in a separate publication.

What did he not have to show them while the vessel, surrounded by playful dolphins, steamed through the bright water at daybreak Herculaneum, Pompeji, Mount Vesuvius - what a host of historical memories, of quotations from the classics must have come alive! We can visualize the urbane man, well aware of his own worth, in his top hat, stand-up collar and waisted coat, moving easily among the strange scholars, pointing out to them the various sights; explaining the physical reasons of the wondrous play of colours in the Blue Grotto, reciting Sueton on Capri, reminding them of Statius at the Capo della Minerva, and recalling how Strabo and already espoused the unification of the island with the mainland. The small isles which are called “I Galli”, the alleged sirens isles, gave him an opportunity to show how well he remembered his Odyssey.

At last they are nearing Paestum; the temples can already be distinguished - when a small fleet of festively decorated barques approach them. Everybody is enchanted with the colourful and vivid sight. We can well imagine how Chevalley de Rivaz must long for one of the masters of the Scuola di Posilippo, for Carelli, Duclere or Vianelli, to capture the brilliance of it all for posterity. On the shore, twenty ox-drawn carts with gaily coloured awnings and decorated with flowers and myrtle sprigs are waiting to take them to the temples. There, in two marquees, refreshments are offered; but Chevalley does not bide long before he is drawn away to the everlasting fabrics of the Greeks, which are now being expounded by the Inspector of Antiquieties.

Chevalley de Rivaz was widely honoured. He delighted in enumerating on fly leaf and title page of his spa-book all the learned societies at home and abroad of which he had been elected a member, and the orders he had been awarded. He remained a doctor of the French Legation in Naples, represented the French Consulate on Ischia and was moreover Consul of the Papal States. To the Bourbons, who regularly spent the summer months on Ischia with their families and to whom the island owes a lot, he was greatly attached and paid them almost excessive reverence. He was not for long to survive their deposal, which must have been particularly painful for the ageing man. Chevalley de Rivaz, the last vastly gifted spa-physician of calibre of Ischia, died on 1st December, 1863, and rotted away to nothing in the soil which had been so dear to him.

Note by E.P. Suter

Dr. de Rivaz was the personal physician to the two bourbon kings Ferdinand I. and II. (Re Bomba), who raised him to nobility awarding him the name of his birth-place, Rivaz, on the lake of Geneva (CH). His guest-books, lists of Patients and all other documents are owned by our friend, Duke Camerini di Piezzola, Ischia and castle Montriglio near Piacenza (Veneto).