The History of Reflexology

Executive Order 13147 in March 2000, commissioned the commencement of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (WHCCAMP) through which a statement was to be provided to the President of the United States on “legislative and administrative recommendations for assuring that public policy maximizes the benefits to Americans of complementary and alternative medicine.”

The Commission labored for two years. It proffered its findings to the Health and Human Services of the National Institutes of Health. The final account addresses “the coordination of research to increase knowledge about CAM products, the education, training and licensing of health care practitioners in CAM, the provision of reliable and useful information about CAM practices and products to health care professionals and guidance regarding appropriate access to and deliver of CAM”.

Reflexology is  recognized as an independent Complementary and Alternative Modality by the National Institutes of Health and by the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The Commission had heard and read the testimonies of over 700 individuals and organizations, including attestation from the Reflexology Association of America. It is of note that Reflexology is one of the top sixteen CAM services in hospitals according to the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey by the American Hospital Association.

The  National Institutes of Health Strategic Planning Forum was  held soon thereafter.  This meeting was designed to gather information from complementary and alternative medicine practitioners and therapies as the focus of the Center’s work for the next years. Again the Reflexology Association of America was present together with the American Reflexology Certification Board and the American Commission for Accreditation of Reflexology Education and Training.

The seedlings of Reflexology planted so many centuries ago have grown into a powerful and beautifully protective tree that offers refreshing shade and haven. Reflexology has a permanent self-supporting main stem  that has grown to considerable height and has developed branches that extend far and wide. 

Those seedlings reach far back into human history. There is evidence of this in the fascinating discovery of American Ed Case, an Egyptian pictograph, the original carving located in the tomb of a medical doctor and influential official. This is one of the earliest possible evidences interpreted as depicting Reflexology.

Relationships between point locations on the feet and their effects can be seen in drawings from Japan, China, Arabia and India. By the 1500s publications indicate that in Europe pressure therapy as well known and practiced by all classes. One book by Drs. Adamus and A’tatis regarding zone therapy appeared as early as 1582.

In 1833, Marshall Hall, English physiologist introduced the concept and term ‘reflex action’ concerning unconscious reflexes and volitional acts. In the 1870s, the Neurological Society of London was founded and came to include Sir Henry Head, Sir Charles Sherrington, and John Hughlings Jackson. Its official publication was Brain, a Journal of Neurology. By 1878 this journal published an article by Dr T. Lauter Brunton entitled “Reflex Action as a Cause of Disease and Means of Cure” in which he mentions ‘the heel.’

1893 was a significant year. John Hughlings Jackson theorizes that the nervous system is composed of different levels. Sir Henry Head writes for Brain the article “On Disturbances of Sensation with Especial Reference to the Pain of Visceral Disease.” He finds that the whole body and limbs could be marked into areas which correspond to the distribution of the pain given off from one segment of the spinal cord. Therefore “Head’s zones’ or ‘zones of hyperalgesia’ were established. Head and W.H.R. Rivers report of their studies in Brain.  Their article was entitled “The Afferent Nervous System From a New Aspect.” Head conclusively proves the neurological relationship that exists between the skin and internal organs. 

By 1906, Sir Charles Sherrington published “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System.” He established that the whole nervous system adjusts to stimulus and terms this ‘proprioception.’ Edgar Adrian showed that the electrical intensity of the nerve impulse depends on the size of the nerve rather than upon the strength of the stimulus. In 1932, Sir Charles Sherrington shared with Edgar Adrian the Nobel Prize. In 1963, Hodgkin and Huxley were awarded the Nobel Prize for their description of behavior and transmission of nerve impulses. 

In Europe, the Germans also made significant contributions. As early as 1583 a book on zone therapy was published in Leipzig by a Dr. Ball. In 1771, the German physiologist Johann Unzer used the term ‘reflex’ with reference to motor reactions, and in 1899 Naegeli published Treatment and Healing of Nervous Suffering and Nervous Pain by Hand Manipulation. Later Dr. Alfons Cornelius published Druckpunkte, or Pressure Points, Their Origin and Significance. It is significant that German physician Barczewski introduced the term ‘reflexmassage’ in reference to applied pressure as a method of healing while in 1929, Elisabeth Dicke, physical therapist, published information indicating her discovery that pathological changes can take place in subcutaneous tissues within the connective tissue layers. Her methods are currently used not only as a treatment for disease of the circulatory system as well as other pathological conditions but also as a diagnostic tool by medical doctors in Germany. In 1974 Hanne Marquardt published Reflex Zone Therapy of the Feet.

In Russia more than 100 articles on Reflexology have been published in the past twenty years. There is scientific testing at Leningrad Sanitary-Hygiene Medical Institute of reflex therapy on patients with a variety of problems, and in Russia Reflexology is found to be an effective complement to traditional medicine. 

Details of these fascinating studies can be found in Christine Issel’s reference work  Reflexology: Art, Science & History.  In relation to Reflexology in the United States, Issel states, “American Dr. William Fitzgerald is usually credited with being the founder of reflexology. Fitzgerald never published where he became acquainted with the theory of zone therapy, nor does he give any credit to original sources of work preceding his.  Fitzgerald also makes no reference to any Oriental influence. As previously mentioned, zone therapy was known in Europe in the 1500’s so Fitzgerald cannot be the discoverer of zone therapy, perhaps rediscoverer would be more appropriate. It is known  that Fitzgerald  was teaching and studying in Vienna the same year Cornelius published his manuscript on pressure points in the same city.”    

From 1915 into the early thirties the subject of zone therapy was controversial  but did meet with a certain amount of success with doctors and dentists. One physician who did believe in Fitzgerald’s work was Dr. Joe Shelby Riley of Washington, D.C.  Riley was one of the most untiring developers and practitioners. During the 1930’s Eunice Ingham worked with Dr. Riley as his therapist. Eunice Ingham  made major contributions to Reflexology  as she took her work to the public. 

Issel  adds, “Possibly the longest running clinical use of reflexology in the United States involves The Rehabilitation Center of Neurological Development in Piqua, Ohio. Since 1978 the Center has been using Reflexology with good results in its program of sensory-motor exercises for those suffering from brain damage whether his damage resulted from an accident, a stroke, or from birth. “

The first true research project with strict scientific protocol was run in 1991 under the direction of the American Academy of Reflexology and Bill Flocco. This study also has the distinction of being the first on reflexology published in a scientific peer review medical journal, The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in December, 1993. 

During the 1990’s Reflexologists determined to establish Reflexology as a self-regulating profession resolved to combine their efforts and established the International Council of Reflexologists and soon published its 325-page volume Research Analysis Document, an Independent Analysis of over 350 Reflexology Studies from Around the World. The bound collection of published studies includes 268 study topics. Later the national Reflexology Association of America was formed and continues to provide its members with outstanding leadership during this time in which Reflexology gains acceptance as a serious and respected complementary modality in the health field.

The seedlings are planted. They are tenderly treated and watered. It is only natural that they grow. The planting has developed and matured and bears fruit. The tree has become massive. Its beauty appeals. Its strength instills confidence.