The History of Physical Therapy

National Physical Therapy month is celebrated in October to recognize the impact physical therapy has had on the medical profession and to encourage community awareness on the benefits that physical therapy has on treating chronic or acute pain.  

Physical therapists and physicians work together to treat children at a New England poliomyelitis clinic in 1916.

So how did the profession of physical therapy get started?  

Little known is how far back in history the idea of physical therapy goes.   There are documented records as early as 430 BC that Hippocrates recognized the benefits of massage, manual manipulation and water therapy for pain relief.  It wasn’t until much later towards the end of the 19th century with the establishment of orthopedics in medicine, the outbreak of polio  and with women recruited in WWI to restore function to injured soldiers, that modern day physical therapy as we know it was recognized as a profession.    

It is recorded that the Swedish scholar and fitness enthusiast, Per Hendrik Ling, is given credit for being the first to recognize physical therapy as a profession when he established the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics in 1813 for manipulation and exercise.  He recognized the benefits exercise and manual manipulation had on restoring function and movement in people with disabilities. In 1887 the Swedish National Board of Health & Welfare was the first to register practitioners working in Ling’s institute as physical therapists.   

Other countries were soon to follow as they recognized the benefits of physical therapy.  In 1896, nurses in England formed the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. In 1913 New Zealand started one of the earliest schools of physical therapy at the University of Otago.  In 1914 a school for “Reconstructive Aides”, a term used for those practicing physical therapy was established in the United States at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington DC.   

As the profession continued to gain recognition, the first physical therapy research in the US was published in March of 1921.  That same year, the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association was established by American physical therapist Mary McMillan.  Due to her extensive contributions to the profession, Mary McMillan became known as the “Mother of Physical Therapy”. 

Mary McMillan, circa 1921

The demand for physical therapists became even greater during WWII and the polio epidemic during the 1940’s and 1950’s.   By late 1940’s, the physical therapy association changed its name to what is known today as the American Physical Therapy Association, or APTA. The goal of the APTA is to further advancements in physical therapy practice, research and education.  Current membership is over 100,000.

Reconstruction Aides treat soldiers at           Fort Sam Houstan, Texas, in 1919

The month of October is the time physical therapists across the country celebrate and encourage everyone to raise awareness of physical therapy as a cost-effective and safe alternative to medication and in many cases surgery.  According to the APTA, physical therapy is “a safer way to manage pain.”  

If you, a friend or family member is suffering from chronic or acute pain, recent or unresolved injury, please consult with your local physical therapist who will design a plan specific to your needs and goals. 

Written by : Marilyn Johnson PT, facts and references from : APTA and Wikipedia.