Theodore Roosevelt said, The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.  I have been looking back at my studies on the history of Reflexology to refresh my knowledge and to strengthen my work going forward.

Where did Reflexology come from and when?

I dug out this map I created for my coursework 10 years ago to help me show you! 

The History and Development of Reflexology

As the map shows, it is a little difficult to pinpoint one person or country to the development of Reflexology. There is evidence that the therapy existed in most ancient cultures, and these cultures also appeared to have practised it independently, not necessarily influenced by each other. Evidence of Reflexology dates back even as far as 12,000BC when the Incas in Latin America were believed to have used it.  Their knowledge was said to have been passed down from generation to generation, filtering into the Native American tribes from the 17th Century with it still being used within their culture today. Asia has used and developed alternative therapies for thousands of years.  Medical writings from around 5000BC note the effect of pressure point techniques.  This was said to have been discovered on the battlefield where pressure points were used as self-defence.  Soldiers in this time made claims that certain symptoms of disease were cured after being wounded.  Warriors would pound their chest before battle to strengthen their immunity (the thymus gland, which plays an important role in the immune system, is located behind the sternum/breastbone). Chinese physicians learnt through trial and error that applying pressure on certain points alleviated pain.  This pressure theory has instigated the development of many therapies that have similar roots to Reflexology, such as Acupuncture and Shiatsu. Reflexology was apparently used within the early healing methods of the Taoists, and the growth of Buddhism, with monks travelling from India to China, allowed the knowledge to spread.  This knowledge would have filtered into Europe through travellers and scholars, who attended the well-established Indian universities. The pictogram shown below is a well-known image in the Reflexology world.  It is from a wall painting discovered in the tomb of the physician Ankmahor at Saqqara in Egypt dating back to 2330 – 2500BC.  It demonstrates two people carrying out healing work on both the hands and feet.

The History and Development of Reflexology

The hieroglyphic inscription reads: Patient: Please do not hurt me.” Physician: I will work so that you shall praise me.” The theory of applying pressure on one part of the body to therapeutically affect another, was investigated by two European physicians Adamus and A’tatis in Vienna in 1582.  They went onto write one of the earliest books on the subject. The late 1800’s leading to the 1900’s proved to be a time of significant advances for Reflexology theories coming together by many brilliant minds in various parts of the world. An English Neurologist, Sir Henry Head, in the 1890’s looked into the connection between the nervous system, the skin, and the internal organs. 

The History and Development of Reflexology

He identified that there are dermatomes throughout the entire body. A dermatome is an area of skin that is mainly supplied by a single spinal nerve. After years of research, he charted which areas of skin relate to which nerve, and looked at how these areas of skin can show what is happening in the related organs. During this time Sir Charles Sherrington, a colleague of Sir Henry Head, carried out further research on the functions of nerves, the body’s reflexes and how the nervous system controls the activities of the body.  He coined the term proprioceptivewhich is how well we sense the position of our body and its movement, this is mediated by proprioceptors located in the muscles, tendons, and joints. In 1906 he published The Integrative Action of the Nervous System.’ In Germany a Dr.Alfons Cornelius found, through curing his own illness, that putting pressure on sensitive areas of his body did indeed help to improve his health. Research was also being carried out on reflexes of the body in a psychological perspective by scientists in Russia.  One, who is well known for his work on the conditioning of reflexes, is Ivan Pavlov with his famous experiment with salivating dogs. The History and Development of Reflexology

The person to make big steps in progressing this early work was Dr.William Fitzgerald who graduated in Vermont, America in 1895.  He practised medicine for 2 and a half years in Boston before moving to London to work at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital.  He also spent time in Vienna, thus allowing him to learn through his travels, and for his ideas and inspirations to be absorbed by both America and Europe. Fitzgerald explored the phenomenon that the body is divided into invisible energetic channels.  He concluded that there are 10 zones running from the tips of each finger and toe throughout the body.  He discovered that by stimulating the energy flow in one area of a zone this would affect the whole of that zone.  This reflex was demonstrated to relieve pain and even act as an anaesthetic for minor operations.  With the encouragement and assistance of Dr.Edwin Bowers and Dr.George Starr White in 1917 ‘Zone Therapy was officially born.   Another Doctor working in this period of the early 1900’s, and also a friend and colleague of Fitzgerald, was Dr.Joe Shelby Riley.  He tried out ‘Zone Therapy’ on many patients and expanded upon the theory along with his wife Elizabeth Riley, and his assistant Eunice Ingham.

The History and Development of Reflexology

The development of Reflexology of the feet, as we know it today, was finally created by the dedicated works of Eunice Ingham from the early 1930’s until 1974 when she died.  She is now known as The Mother of Reflexology.’ Eunice found that the reflexes of the feet were the most responsive to stimulation, and she went on to create charts of the reflexes demonstrating how the body is mapped out on the feet. In 1938 she published Stories The Feet Can Tell, later writing Stories The Feet Have Told in 1951, and then finally Stories The Feet are Telling in the 1960’s.     The term ‘Reflexology’ was formed in the 1960’s when physiotherapists objected to the word ‘therapy’ being used and, after various other versions, Reflexology was the one that stuck with ‘-ology’ meaning the science or study of a subject or discipline. Mildred Carter studied with Fitzgerald and also worked alongside Dr.Riley sharing their techniques.  She practised as a therapist in the 1950’s travelling the world to lecture about their theories. Eunice travelled America also giving seminars and attending one of these seminars in Seattle was Ed Johnstone, Ena Campbell and Laura Kennedy who then took their new knowledge back to Canada with them. Eunice trained Doreen Bayly who returned to England to set up the Bayly School of Reflexology and in 1978 wrote Reflexology Today’. Hanne Marquardt from Germany also learnt alongside Eunice and she expanded upon the ideas by identifying the three transverse zones on the feet reflecting the three parts of the body: the head/neck/shoulder area, the chest & upper abdominal and the lower abdominal pelvic area. During her years of developing Reflexology, Eunice gave treatments to her sickly nephew Dwight Byers.  He continued her work within the International Institute of Reflexology in Florida, America which was established in the 1970’s. Today there are schools across the whole world where the art of Reflexology is taught and practised using numerous versions and methods.  In the west Eunice and others adopted and taught a reasonably heavy technique using the fingers and thumbs, which was then adapted by a therapist Gladys Evans who believed that massage should be lighter to avoid causing pain and in turn tension. Eastern techniques are renowned to be more vigorous with the use of knuckles and even implements, such as wooden sticks, therefore they must be more aware of certain contraindications when giving treatments. The styles of Reflexology may differ from country to country, from therapist to therapist, but all have the same goal – to relieve pain, ease ailments, and promote health and wellbeing. The extent of which these great minds, carrying out countless studies, applying their knowledge and  science, over so many years, to support how applying pressure on one part of the body has a therapeutic affect on another part of the body, offers confidence that Reflexology, not only feels amazing, it can achieve awesome results beyond the deep relaxation it initially instils.