The History of Reflexology



Reflexology is a simple, effective and natural therapy which focuses on the feet.  It is over 5,000 years old and has origins in China and Egypt, where pressure therapies were recognised to have therapeutic benefits and more importantly, help prevent disease.  The oldest evidence of Reflexology is a wall painting in the tomb of an Egyptian physician 'Ankmahor' at Saqqara, dated around 2500-2300 BC.  The inscription reads "Do not let it be painful" (one of the patients) "I do as you please" (an attendant).

The wonderful art of foot reflex therapy was not introduced to the Western World until the twentieth century when the Americans began to develop zone therapy, which had been practised by the Europeans as far back as the fourteenth century, into Reflexology as we know it today.


The Europeans:

The scientific basis of reflex study began in neurological studies in London.  In 1898, Sir Henry Head, discovered zones on the skin which became hypersensitive to pressure when an organ connected by nerves to the skin region, was diseased.  After years of clinical research, Head established what became known as 'Heads Zones' or 'Zones of Hyperalgesia'.

The Russians were also interested in reflex work from a psychological point of view.  Ivan Sechenov, the founder of Russian physiology and cerebral inhibition of spinal reflexes, published an article in 1870, titled 'Who Must Investigate the Problems of Psychology and How?'

Psychologists under Vladimir Berkhterev, who founded Leningrad's Brain Institute took up the challenge.  At the same time, Ivan Pavlov acknowledged that Sechenov's book was important inspiration for his work on conditioning.  Through this, he developed the theory of conditioned reflexes - namely that there is a simple and direct relationship between a stimulus and a response.  He concluded that practically any stimulus could act as a conditioning stimulus to produce a conditioned response.

In the late 1890's and early 1900's, the Germans were developing Massage techniques which became known as 'reflex massage' and it is believed they were the first to apply Massage to 'reflex zones'.

A Dr Alfons Cornelius suffered an infection in 1893.  As part of his convalescence, he received daily Massage.  At the Spa where he was being treated, he noticed that one particular Medical Officer worked longer on painful areas and Cornelius noted that his Massage technique was more effective.  He instructed his Masseur to work in this way which led to his full recovery within four weeks.  He pursued the use of pressure techniques in his own medical practice and published a manuscript 'Pressure Points, The Origin and Significance' in 1902.

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The Americans:

The history of modern Reflexology began with Dr William Fitzgerald who was the founder of zone therapy.

Dr Fitzgerald was a Physician at the Boston City Hospital as well as a practising Laryngologist at St Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut.  He was studying in Vienna when he came into contact with the work of Dr Bressler, who had been investigating the possibility of treating organs with pressure points.  Fitzgerald continued his research while Head Physician at the Hospital for Diseases of the Ear, Nose and Throat in Hartford, Connecticut.  Whilst testing his theories on his patients, he found that if pressure was applied on the fingers, it created a local anaesthetic effect on the hand, arm and shoulder, right up to the jaw, face and nose.

He divided the body into zones, establishing ten equal, longitudinal zones running the length of the body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes.  The theory is that parts of the body found within a certain zone will be linked with another by the energy flow within the zone and can therefore affect one another.

In 1917, the combined work of Fitzgerald and his colleague, Dr Bowers, was published in the book 'Zone Therapy'.  The medical profession did not enthusiastically receive the book, however, one Physician, Dr Joseph Shelby Riley was intrigued.

Riley and his wife Elizabeth, refined the techniques and used them in their practice for many years.  Riley added eight horizontal divisions to Fitzgerald's longitudinal zones and made the first detailed diagrams of the reflex points located in the feet.  He wrote four books in which large portions were devoted to zone therapy.  Although Fitzgerald, Bowers and Riley developed zone therapy, it was Riley's assistant, Eunice Ingham, who made the greatest contribution to the establishment of modern Reflexology.

Eunice used zone therapy in her work as a Physiotherapist, but felt that the feet should be specifically targeted because of their highly sensitive nature.  She charted the feet in relation to the zones and their effects on the rest of the anatomy until she had evolved on the feet themselves, a map of the entire body.

Eunice was of the opinion that in less serious cases, only a few Reflexology treatments a week were necessary to help most patients.  This incentivised her to take her work to the public and the non-medical community, including Chiropodists, Massage Therapists, Physiotherapists and Osteopaths.  She travelled for over thirty years to teach them the techniques in order for them to help themselves.

She wrote two books, 'Stories the Feet Can Tell' (1938) and 'Stores the Feet Have Told' (1963).  Today, her legacy continues under the direction of her nephew, Dwight Byers, who runs the International Institute of Reflexology.

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