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History of Physical Therapy

Posted on: October 20, 2020

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Happy Physical Therapy Month from all of us at Barton Healthcare Staffing! According to the American Physical Therapy Association,  PT month presents an annual opportunity to raise awareness about the benefits of physical therapy. In honor of the month long celebration, or clinical liaison and physical therapy expert, Allison Stringer DPT., takes a look at the long history of the PT profession in this blog post. Read on to learn about the origins of the modern physical therapy career!


Physical therapy techniques have been documented throughout history as a means to treat pain.  As early as 300 B.C. the Chinese used rubbing as therapeutic measures. In 460 B.C., Hippocrates and the Romans wrote about massage, manual therapy techniques, and hydrotherapy. But it was Per Henrik Ling, the “Father of Swedish Gymnastics”,  who founded the Royal Central Institute of gymnastics in 1813, and is credited as creating the original profession of physical therapy.  

In the United States, Physical Therapy began in response to the needs of shoulders injured during World War I. The wounded needed to return to battle, creating a demand for rehabilitation. The Surgeon General decided to adopt a plan following the European model for rehabilitation. He defined physiotherapy as ‘physical measures such as are employed under physiotherapy, including hydro, electro, mechano therapy, active exercise, indoor and outdoor games, and passive exercise in the form of massage. (Granger, 1923).

In 1917, the Division of Special Hospitals and Physical Reconstruction was established.  Boston based Orthopedic Surgeons, Elliot G. Brachett, MD and Joel E. Goldthwait MD,  Frank Granger, MD, and Marguerite Sanderson developed both physical reconstruction and education programs for the United States.  Brachett had experience with the Medical Department of the Army and was the chief surgeon of the Orthopedic Military Corps in the Home Services. Goldthwait was the chief surgeon in the Orthopedic Military Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, and Granger was appointed chief of the physical therapy section.  Granger practiced neurology and used physical procedures in his treatment. 

Marguerite Sanderson, a graduate from Wellesley College and Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, was associated with Goldthwait in his Boston practice. Sanderson and the others organized the administrative details for the Reconstruction Aids program.  Shortly after the beginning of the war she was transferred to Washington, DC to organize reconstruction units for overseas hospitals;  she later went to Germany with the Army of Occupation to supervise the Reconstruction Aids.

Before her departure in 1918, Sanderson met Mary McMillian at the Walter Reed General Hospital .  McMillian was trained in Europe and returned to the United States becoming the first Physical Therapist in the United States. She was assigned by the Surgeon General to the Reconstruction Aid program and appointed head Reconstruction Aid in March of 1918.

The First Physical Therapists

 When Sanderson and the other reconstruction units reached the overseas hospitals they took the medical corps by surprise. Many physicians did not know that “such a group of women existed.”  (Hanzeheyer, 1946).  These young women came wearing blue uniforms, “they were not nurses, social services workers, nor were the daughters of the rich who came to help the Soldiers forget their troubles (Hazenhyer, 1946). These women were trained in physical education, “military” massage, muscle re-education and were ready to perform their duty.  The United States had about 2000 Aids in service during the war and about three hundred of them were overseas. 

Keep an eye out for part 2, where we'll discuss the birth of the Physical Therapy Association!

Resources 

Granger, F.B., MD “the beginning of ‘Modern Physiotherapy’:.  PT Review June 1923, 13-14
Hazenhyer, Ida May “A History of the American Physiotherapy ASsociation”  PT. Review Jan/Feb 1946, 60-99

Allison Stringer, MS, PT, FAAOMPT, CHA
About Allison Stringer, MS, PT, FAAOMPT, CHA

Allison Stringer, Physical Therapist, is the Clinic Director for Professional Physical Therapy in Salem, MA. Allison received her Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy from Simmons College in 1993. In 2000, she achieved the status of a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists after completed the Institute of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy. Allison continues to treat patients and specializes in manual Physical Therapy for patients with orthopedic injuries to the spine and extremities, sports medicine, and wide range of Women’s Health issues including incontinence.