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Russell Thacker Trall, M.D.: Detailed Biography


He was an American physician and proponent of hydrotherapy, natural hygiene, and vegetarianism and authored the first American vegan cookbook in 1874. Dr. Trall cured many of his patients without drugs and wrote over 40 books, which generated a loyal following in the 19th century.

Excerpt From

Graham, S., Trall. R., Shelton, H.  (2009) The Greatest Health Discovery. Youngstown, OH. National Health Association. 

“The system which we endorse and practice is true—in harmony with nature, following the laws of the vital organism, correct in science, sound in philosophy, in agreement with common sense, successful in results, and a blessing to mankind.”

Early Years

Russell Thacker Trall was born in Vernon, Connecticut, on August 5, 1812. His parents moved to Western New York, which was little more than a wilderness during his infancy. Throughout his youth, he worked on his father’s farm.  As he grew into a young man, he began to have issues with his health. He was a keen observationist and believed that the doctors who treated him, using methods of the day, caused him more harm than any good.  He wasn’t satisfied with their explanations of his illness or the remedies they wanted to use.  He decided to investigate his health issues, wishing to get to the root cause, and thus began his journey to learn about health.  Since there were few educational opportunities, he started training as a medical student with a local village physician. During his studies, he began to think that most current medical doctrines were harmful and downright dangerous. He became very skeptical of the so-called medical science of the world.

Trall’s diet was simple, consisting chiefly of Graham’s bread, hard Graham crackers, fruits, and nuts — two meals a day, without salt. He neither drank tea, coffee, or milk but consumed only soft water. He had a solid work ethic and lived on very little sleep.  

Life: Mid 1800s 

One of the most significant events of the 1800s was the Civil War. Many soldiers died from illness and infected wounds. During this time, water was often contaminated, medical equipment was not sterilized, and doctors rarely washed their hands. Dysentery was the worst in the military camps, entering the body through contaminated food or water and attacking the intestines. Hygiene was deplorable, and latrines were often located near drinking water sources. Typhoid was another unsanitary disease that could quickly spread from an infected person. Pneumonia was also responsible for many deaths, as men were unable to breathe as their lungs filled with fluids. Malaria was another factor, but it wasn’t as fatal if treated with quinine. Even measles killed an estimated one in twenty of those who came down with the disease.


There are but two medical systems: the Drug Medical System and the Hygienic Medical System. One employs poisons as the proper disease remedy; the other employs hygienic materials and agencies. 

—R.T. Trall M.D.

Dr. Trall firmly believed that the proper system of the Healing Art—Hygienic Medication rejects drugs, medicines, or poisons. It rejects them because they are intrinsically bad and employs hygienic agencies (air, light, temperature, water, etc.) because they are inherently good. 

Trall began the Water Cure Institution in New York in 1844, the first in the United States. He was genuinely forward-thinking in setting up this institution. He realized that if the next generation were to change, he would have to educate them.

From this time, Dr. Trall did not administer any drugs, medicines, or alcoholic stimulations of any kind. He believed that the medical profession harms many with drugs and doses. He thought that they would never find a healing solution using drugs, for none exists. In contrast, his hygienic principles reject drugs because they do not heal the body, and he prefers to employ hygienic lifestyle practices because they help the body to heal.

Drug medication, no matter what disguise, he believed, produced disease in healthy people. 

On the contrary, hygienic medication rejects all poisons.  Its foundation is the same materials and influences that preserve health and wellness (i.e., clean air, light, temperature, good food, water, etc.). 

In 1851, he wrote  The Hydropathic Encyclopedia: A System of Hydropathy and Hygiene; In Eight Parts, published by the Army Medical Library. This encyclopedia is an elaborate work of nearly one thousand pages, which not only discusses the theory and practice of Hydropathy but also considers the philosophy and treatment of diseases practiced by the older schools of medicine.  This book delves extensively into the anatomy and physiology of the human body, hygiene, preservation of health, dietetic and hydropathic cooking, water treatment, unique pathology, symptoms and treatment of known diseases, surgery, midwifery, and the nursery. It is a fantastic achievement, given the writing tool of the day was the quill. The circulation of the encyclopedia alone exceeded over forty thousand copies!

His book, the Hydropathic Encyclopedia, was geared towards the medical profession.  He quickly realized that he needed a book for the layman.  In 1855, he published Hydropathy for the People: with Plain Observations on Drugs, Diet, Water, Air and Exercise. His objective was to indoctrinate everyone on the general principles of Hydropathy.

Caption: Recipe from 1873 by Russell Thacker Trail –  The new hydropathic cook-book: with recipes for cooking on hygienic principles: containing also a philosophical exposition of the relations of food to health.

The Hydropathic Cookbook was a natural outcome of his dietetic system. It includes a compilation of recipes and a scientific treatise on food. Popular Physiology was a brief but thorough treatise on human physiology and was used as a textbook.

The catalog of his published books includes more than forty volumes, embracing the subjects of physiology, diphtheria, hydropathy, hygiene, vegetarianism, temperance, women’s health, and books to teach women how to create a hygienic home, prepare food, as well as taking care of the sick. 

You will find links to his original books in the publication system.  These works have been digitally preserved, which provides a proud legacy and tribute to Dr. Russell Thacker Trall—a true pioneer and trailblazer of the National Health Association. 

Notable Achievements

As noted in his timeline, Dr. Trall found time to write  40+ books and pamphlets, besides editing and contributing to several periodicals.  Trall was in charge of the editorial department of the Water-Cure Journal for more than fifteen years, which was afterward called The Hygienic Teacher. Under his name, that journal became The Herald of Health.

In 1853, Trall founded the New York Hydropathic and Physiological School, which became the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College in 1857. His students learned water treatment and nutrition, the virtues of self-discipline, emotional, sexual, and physical moderation. Men and women were admitted on equal terms, which was then foreign in society.

Trall noted that soldiers in the Civil War were dying from typhoid fever, pneumonia, measles, dysentery, etc., and quite unnecessarily. He knew that the application of hygienic medication would save many lives. 

The successful treatment of soldiers in the Civil War was of national importance to Trall. He wanted to present the merits of Hydropathy and Hygiene versus allopathic therapy to the nation. His goal was to extend and share his knowledge throughout the civilized world.

Trall believed that there are but two medical systems in existence–the Drug Medical System and the Hygienic Medical System. He wanted to expose the fallacies of drug medication and explain the truths of the hygienic system. He addressed letters to President Lincoln, the secretaries of State, War, the Navy, the Treasury, and Members of Congress in Washington. He never received a response.  

Dr. Trall Goes to Washington

However, he was determined to be heard in Washington and would only leave once he had done so. He was persistent.

His objective was to expose the fallacies of drug medication and explain the truths of the hygienic system in a place and circumstance that would command attention. He faced many obstacles, but his tenacity prevailed, and he lectured at the Smithsonian Institute in 1862.

For over ten years, Trall openly challenged the leading medical men of his day to dispute the veracity of Natural Hygiene practices. Additionally, Trall wanted to disprove the validity of their system. His culminating efforts occurred when he delivered his address at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C., which brought out the stark treatment of medical doctors. 

The challenge offered a debate on the difference between the standard medical practice and Trall’s hygienic principles. Any professor in an allopathic medical college or the civilized world was allowed to refute or disprove, in any way, hygienic principles. That challenge was never accepted. 

Dr. Trall explains in his Water Cure Journal, “I inquired how long a Washington audience could be kept patiently in their seats and was informed that about one hour was the usual length of lectures and that the longest lecture thus far had been one hour and a half. The reader may judge my interest in my subject when I state that the audience listened intently for two hours and a half—from eight to half-past ten.” 

I conclude with a single remark. All history attests to the fact that wherever the Drug Medical System prevails, desolation marks its track, human health declines, vital stamina diminishes, diseases become more numerous, more complicated, and more fatal, and the human race deteriorates. On the contrary, wherever the Hygienic Healing System is adopted–and there is no exception–renovation denotes its progress, and humanity improves in all the relations of its existence. These are why I value the opportunity to speak for the welfare of the great human family.
–R. T. Trall, 1862

While Trall gave a powerful lecture at the Smithsonian, his ideas were lost between the war and the country’s recovery post-civil war. Later, he published these concepts in The True Healing Art: Or, Hygienic vs. Drug Medication in 1872.


”The Drug Medical System cannot bear examination. To explain it would be to destroy it, and to defend it, even is to damage it.”

—R.T. Trall M.D.

One of Dr. Trall’s later works is Digestion and Dyspepsia, which had a wide circulation.  

In the first part, digestion, he discusses nutrition, intestinal digestion, absorption of nutrients, aeration of the food elements, and tobacco. For the ladies, he discussed tight-laced corsets and their impact on digestion! They were indeed tight.

In part II, he goes into dyspepsia, which is indigestion. Dyspepsia originates from Latin and Greek and means ‘difficult to digest.’
 He discusses the nature of dyspepsia, its causes, symptoms, and treatment principles related to food, drink, exercise, bathing, clothing, sleep, ventilation, light, temperature, mental influences, and occupation. 

The Mother’s Hygienic Handbook was a manual for women to learn home hygienic principles, including the care and management of children. It was considered an exceedingly valuable work, as there were few resources for women then. 

Mother’s Hygienic Handbook: Why wasn’t this passed down and updated as we learned more about the human body? 

In 1873, as a follow-up for mothers, he wrote The Hygienic Handbook, a practical guide for dealing with the sick. It was arranged alphabetically and was regarded as an illustrative appendix of hygeio-therapeutic practices.  

Hygienic Handbook: Why didn’t this get updated and re-published as new information became available?

Other works by Dr. Trall worthy of mention are Alcoholic Controversy, True Healing Art, Uterine Diseases, Tobacco Usage, Water Cure for the Millions, and The Temperance Platform.

Dr. Russell Thacker Trall was an amazingly prolific writer on all things human and was a true pioneer of the National Health Association.  His vast work influenced, educated, and healed thousands.  Considering this was done well over 150 years ago, his insights were extraordinary.

Learn more with excerpts from: (link to excerpts)

The NHA wishes to remind the readers that nothing in this or other publications is intended to constitute medical treatment or advice. Readers should be aware that some previous publications do not reflect the NHA’s current health teachings or approach to health in several areas.

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