In changing circumstances the more traditional therapists faced a choice, either to continue as part of a broader world of physical culture and practice, or to seek a niche within an increasingly professionalized health care system. Their position was somewhat different, however, to the other emergent occupations associated with particular modern techniques of diagnosis and treatment. Traditional therapists had to find a place within modern medical practice without being a central part of the scientific transformation which was gathering particular force in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Their skills were manual, drug free, and external to the body. Moreover, they were linked to a physical regime of treatment and exercise which was part of the spa culture of the past rather than any clearly new professional domain. They were not, however, anti-scientific, and played a role in the nineteenth-century revival of a general interest in exercise. The Stockholm Central Gymnastic institute and the Ling movement were influential in Britain, and increasingly linked to modernized understanding of physiology. Indeed, Swedish-inspired gymnastics began to influence the curriculum of British schools from the 1870s onwards, but as part of general educational rather than specifically medical developments.
Within this general context the modern emergence of physiotherapy came not through any particular therapeutic revolution, but in effect through a professionalizing stratagem of ‘moralizing’ massage in the 1890s. ‘Rubbing’ had long been recognized as a valuable aspect of nursing practice, and doctors involved in mobilizing patients after injury and surgery were looking increasingly for assistance from nurses with these skills. However, ‘massage’ as more widely practised had acquired a lurid and sexual connotation, as highlighted in a British Medical Journal campaign from 1894 onwards against ‘massage centres’ — understood in reality to be brothels. In response to requirements for further training and a morally managed context for sound practice, a number of forward-thinking nurse-masseuses banded together in 1895 to found a Society of Trained Masseuses. They set out to accomplish two linked ends; to organize the training of legitimate masseuses, and to secure the approval of the medical profession for their standards of education and practice. ‘Rubbing’ as traditionally practised and the corruptions of improper ‘massage’ were to be transformed by respectable women trained in anatomy and physiology, working with and through the medical profession.
Establishing respectability for physical treatments in the early years involved more than a proper ethical training for practitioners. Many doctors were critical of the therapeutic value of treatments offered by masseuses, and indeed of those medical practitioners working with them. Dr James Mennell, for example, a leading physical medicine specialist and far-sighted advocate of the mobilizing and gentle massage of patients soon after injury, recalled in later life the opposition of his colleagues. Massage and manipulation to assist healing remained for many doctors outside the pale of medical science, which for them centred on drug-based and surgical interventions. The other dimensions of early physiotherapy practice — heat, electrical, and water-based applications to aid muscle and joint movement — were equally thought to be reminiscent of charlatans and exhibitionist ‘healers’ who exploited both the desperately ill and the gullible well by useless practices and machinery. Mennell, closely associated for some three decades with physiotherapy in Britain, was approached as a young doctor by a delegation of his colleagues who asked him not to degrade his profession ‘by studying such a very doubtful branch of medical practice’.
The 1914–18 war had a dramatic effect on the status of physiotherapy, in both Britain and North America. An earlier rule prohibiting female practitioners from treating male patients was swept away by the number of casualties. Men were not allowed to join the main professional association until after the war, and thus were trained and examined separately at this time. Leading masseuses founded the Almeric Paget Massage Corps to co-ordinate services through the War Office, hospital services, and other governmental agencies. In the context of war, the social status, value, and purpose of physical treatments changed considerably in public and professional perception. Consequently, in 1920 the earlier, small ‘Society of Masseuses’ became by royal recognition the ‘Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics’. A similar expansion of practitioners and changing medical requirements and attitudes in the US led in 1921 to the founding of the American Physical Therapy Association.
The efforts of early physiotherapists to secure medical professional approval brought benefits to physiotherapy's development, but also substantial tensions which have been mainly resolved only from the 1970s onwards. These tensions related to autonomy in treatment procedures and the degree of medical professional supervision required. Over time, the debates on these issues were complicated by the therapeutic eclecticism and swings of fashion at the centre of physical treatment, ranging across massage, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, exercise machines, ultrasound, and heat treatments in varying combinations and emphases. An early position was set out in 1917 by Dr J Mennell in his influential Massage, its Principles and Practice, and was based upon a clear model of professional subordination. Essentially, within this model the doctor was the thinker — diagnosing, prescribing, and monitoring — whilst the physiotherapist was the technician or assistant working to instruction. Physiotherapists were banned from seeing patients directly without medical referral and prescription. Internal debates over these requirements within physiotherapy, and between physiotherapy and medicine, routinely broke out throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Within the physiotherapy profession, private practitioners broadly chafed at medical restraints on their practice, whereas, at least up to World War II, hospital-based physiotherapists appeared less concerned about medical dominance.
During the first half of this century the profession was prevented from throwing off medical tutelage, however much resented by some practitioners, by an overall need to retain its practical advantages. Medical recognition gave access to hospitals, the focus of modern medicine, but also helped in establishing stable frontiers with other trained and untrained health care occupations. In Britain, for example, mergers have sometimes been discussed with occupational therapists, given that there are overlaps between the two groups. In the market-place, historically anybody could legally claim to be a physiotherapist and engage in practice. Equally, hospital employers could employ untrained workers in the absence of strongly organized, validated, and widely-supported certificates of competence. In practice, in many countries, along with other professions, physiotherapists have seen medical control as a step towards securing state licensing or recognition in their own right. After decades of pressure this has usually been attained, provided that local and national medical associations were not antagonistic towards such developments.
The earlier period of medical professional monitoring and supervision was characteristic of the first half of this century, and has now passed away under changing historical circumstances. Across time, physical medicine as a speciality area of practice for physicians had become increasingly a very minor part of medical specialization. In practice the everyday medical supervision of physiotherapy treatments had become nominal prior to its formal end in a number of countries. Physiotherapists now see patients with a wide range of conditions, both independently and by medical referral, when illness, injury, or disability inhibit normal movement. Their techniques include exercise and movement therapy, hydrotherapy, massage, and manipulation, and more recent complementary therapies. Physiotherapy has become one of the specialist professions of health care rather than an ancillary or supplementary occupation. This change has to be placed in a broader context of inter-professional relationships in health, moving from hierarchical to more co-operative models of practice. Furthermore the development of all professions in healthcare has been influenced by international social changes.
In particular, the wider relationships between gender, status, authority, and work have been changing. At one point, for example, physiotherapists were mostly female, whilst doctors were mostly male. This gender composition and balance has been changing for some decades, alongside wider social challenges to male-oriented dominance within many occupations. Another major change of recent decades, of very notable significance for many health professions, including physiotherapy, has been the educational shift from apprenticeship in the workplace to education in the modern university. This development is likely to foster the growth of a particular scientific knowledge base for physiotherapy practice. Finally, physiotherapy, after a century of modern practice, is in ever greater demand, due to epidemiological and demographic changes. The relatively successful treatment of infectious diseases, and growing life expectancy, have highlighted the prevalence of chronic conditions. At the same time, social expectations of full function and mobility in later life have grown. Thus, in changed but continuing ways, the fundamental rationale for physiotherapy — of finding and applying means of retaining, restoring, and where possible expanding physical function and mobility — remains as relevant at the end as it was at the beginning of this century
G. V. Larkin
Larkin, G. V. (1983). Occupational monopoly and modern medicine. Tavistock, London and New York.
Barclay, J. (1994). In good hands, the history of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy 1894–1994. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.
See also massage.
phys·i·o·ther·a·py / ˌfizēōˈ[unvoicedth]erəpē/ • n. British term for physical therapy. DERIVATIVES: phys·i·o·ther·a·pist / -pist/ n.