Bi​rthplace of Wellness: UW-Stevens Point

Birthplace of WellnessWhere did wellness originate? And how did become a word we quite possibly hear every day? Though the Oxford English Dictionary traces wellness, meaning the opposite of illness, to the 1650s, the story of wellness movement really begins in the 1950s. Inspiration for living a more healthy lifestyle in part came from the World Health Organization's 1948 constitution: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." During this time, Halbert L. Dunn, chief of the National Office of Vital Statistics, was looking for new terminology to convey the positive aspects of health beyond simply avoiding sickness. He sketched out his concept in a 1961 book "High-Level Wellness," defined as "an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable."

Over a decade later, an early advocate, John W. Travis, picked up Dunn's book in 1972 from a $2 clearance table at the bookstore of Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he was enrolled in a preventive-medicine residency program. After Travis reluctantly embraced the word wellness, which he originally thought was stupid and would never catch on, he opened the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, California in November 1975. Wellness was so unfamiliar at the time, but soon got national attention when a young doctoral student named Donal B. Ardell profiled Travis's center in the April 1976 issue of Prevention magazine. Prevention's editor, Robert Rodale, welcomed the "exciting field of wellness enhancement. Even greater exposure came with Dan Rather's "60 Minutes" segment on a new health movement known as wellness, which focused on Travis and the Mill Valley center.

Influenced by Travis and Ardell, Bill Hettler, a staff physician at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point founded the annual National Wellness Conference at Stevens Point. The conference lent valuable academic prestige to the wellness movement and also caught the attention of Tom Dickey, who was working with the New York publisher Rodney Friedman in the early 1980s to set up a monthly newsletter on health, based at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1984, the Berkeley Wellness Letter was born. The Berkeley Wellness Letter debunked many of the holistic fads of the day by presenting evidence-based articles on health promotion. It did much to establish the credibility of wellness in the 1980s.

Still, not everyone was a believer. In 1988, a survey of the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language found that a whopping 68 percent of panelists disapproved of the word when used to refer to employee-wellness programs and the like, and a critical note was included in the dictionary's 1992 edition. However, griping over wellness faded away in the 1990s as the term gained a foothold in everyday use. The American Heritage Dictionary silently dropped the usage note on wellness in its fourth edition in 2000, a decision that supervising editor, Steve Kleinedler chalks up to the growing prevalence of wellness programs in the workplace and beyond. A word that once sounded strange and unnecessary, even to its original enthusiasts, has become accepted as part of our glossary of health.​