A History of Physiotherapy (Physical Therapy)

The earliest documented origins of physiotherapy (physical therapy) as a professional group date back to Per Henrik Ling, “Father of Swedish Gymnastics,” who founded the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics (RCIG) in 1813 for massage, manipulation, and exercise. The Swedish word for physiotherapist (physical therapist) is “sjukgymnast” = “sick-gymnast.” In 1887, physiotherapists (physical therapists) were given official registration by Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare.

Other countries soon followed. In 1894 four nurses in Great Britain formed the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy followed by The School of Physiotherapy at the University of Otago in New Zealand in 1913, and in the United States’ in 1914 Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which graduated “reconstruction aides.”

Modern physiotherapy (physical therapy) was established in Britain towards the end of the 19th century. Soon following, American orthopedic surgeons began treating children with disabilities and began employing women trained in physical education, massage, and remedial exercise. These treatments were applied and promoted further during the Polio outbreak of 1916. During the First World War women were recruited to work with and restore physical function to injured soldiers, and the field of physiotherapy (physical therapy) was institutionalized. In 1918 the term “Reconstruction Aide” was used to refer to individuals practicing physiotherapy (physical therapy). The first school of physiotherapy (physical therapy) was established at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washtington D.C. following the outbreak of World War I.

Research catalyzed the physiotherapy (physical therapy) movement. The first physical therapy research was published in the United States in March 1921 in “The PT Review.” In the same year, Mary McMillan organized the Physical Therapy Association (now called the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). In 1924, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation promoted the field by touting physical therapy as a treatment for polio.

Treatment through the 1940s primarily consisted of exercise, massage, and traction. Manipulative procedures to the spine and extremity joints began to be practiced, especially in the British Commonwealth countries, in the early 1950s. Later that decade, physiotherapists (physical therapists) started to move beyond hospital-based practice to outpatient orthopedic clinics, public schools, colleges/universities, geriatric settings (skilled nursing facilities), rehabilitation centers and medical centers.

In 1921 in the physiotherapists (physical therapists) within the United States formed the first professional association called the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association. This gave birth to what is known today as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), and currently represents approximately 76,000 members throughout the United States.

The American Physical Therapy Association defines physical therapy as: “clinical applications in the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal physical function.”

Specialization for physiotherapy (physical therapy) in the U.S. occurred in 1974, with the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association being formed for those physiotherapist’s (physical therapist’s) specializing in orthopaedics. In the same year, the International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Physical Therapists was formed, which has ever since played an important role in advancing manual therapy worldwide.