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Don's report archive

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

A (Very) Brief History of the Wellness Concept

Friday December 29, 2000

Any description of the history of wellness is -- just like the history of a nation or an entire civilization -- subject to many interpretations. Among the least reliable are accounts from those who played a role in shaping said histories or worse, imagined they played such roles. The history of western civilization, for instance, would be quite different if authored solely by, let's say, Attila the Hun or Mother Theresa. As a promoter of the wellness perspective for more than a quarter of a century, I may not be the most objective reporter. Still, I'll give it a shot anyway!

There is little (actually no) argument about one aspect of the history of wellness, and that is the identity of the author of the phrase "high level wellness." This is properly credited to a physician named Halbert L. Dunn. Dr. Dunn promoted wellness in a variety of settings, most memorably in a weekly series of thirteen modest lectures at a Unitarian Church in the Washington, D.C. area in the late 1950's. The talks were published in 1961 in a book entitled "High Level Wellness" by Beatty Press of Arlington, VA.

Not a lot of copies were sold, but a few did find their way into the hands (and minds) of other doctors and health officials, who in turn spread the word about Dr. Dunn's ideas. Over time, many of Dr. Dunn's notions were expanded, modified, and given new forms --and a life of their own. In a way, then, it could be said that wellness began with Dr. Dunn in the middle of the last century.

Naturally, the origins of Dr. Dunn's ideas about fitness, the environment, self responsibility, and other topics go back a great deal farther than the middle of the 20th century. All of these foundation ideas can be traced to antiquity, particularly the ancient Greeks and others. Looking back only a century in our own country, I suspect Dr. Dunn was aware of and influenced by the evangelical "nuts and berry" types like Dr. Kellogg and the "muscular Christianity" apostles, along with all the nutritional one-noters who had considerable followings for elixirs as varied as apple cider to wheat germ.

Only in the past thirty or so years has much attention been given to the form of wellness initiated by Dr. Dunn, which favors a lifestyle approach for joyfully pursuing your highest potential for physical and psychological well-being. In short, Dunn's modern view of wellness is a disciplined commitment to personal mastery.

Going back to the mid-seventies, wellness was distinguished from related movements (particularly by yours truly in books and lectures) as something quite different from (but complementary to) holistic health, prevention, health education, and health promotion. To this day, I make the following distinctions about wellness as something apart from these related areas:

As noted, this is but a very brief history of the term wellness. But, what do you want in a single page -- something that looks like James Henry Breasted's "Conquest of Civilization?"

Be well. Look on the bright side of life.

Domain: mental
Subdomain: factual knowledge

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