The History of Reflexology

It is thought reflexology originated from China around five thousand years ago. It is also believed to have originated from Ancient Egypt as well as in India and Japan. The oldest documentation of reflexology was shown in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics with two men working on the feet and hands of two other men. This dates back to around 2,330BC. It consists of an Egyptian papyrus scene dating from 2500BC and depicts the treating of hands and feet of patients by medical practitioners. In the tomb at Saqqara of the physician Ankhamor, an influential official second only to the king, there is a wall painting depicting the possible practice of reflexology. The hieroglyphics behind the patient and practitioner are translated as the patient’s plea ‘Do no hurt me’ and the practitioner’s reply, ‘I shall act so you praise me.’

In India, 5,000 years ago the feet were thought to symbolise the unity of the entire universe. Sanskrit symbols depicted on the feet of the Buddha were seen as expressions of a higher reality. With the dominance of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, it is thought that the Buddhist monks migrated to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam where a form of foot massaging and healing can be traced.

The 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.

It was first pioneered by an ear, nose and throat surgeon by the name of Dr William Fitzgerald (1872-1942). Dr Fitzgerald was the founder of Zone Therapy, which was an earlier form of reflexology. He discovered that exerting pressure on the tips of the toes or fingers caused corresponding parts of the body to become anaesthetised. From this, Dr Fitzgerald divided the body into ten equal zones, which ran from the top of the head to the ends of the toes. By using tight elastic bands on the middle sections of the fingers, or using small clamps on the tips of the fingers, minor surgery could be carried out with no further anaesthetic agents required.

However, reflexology as we know it today was pioneered by a woman called Eunice Ingham (1889 – 1974), or the mother of modern reflexology. Eunice Ingham was a physiotherapist working in a doctor’s practise using the zone therapy developed by Dr Fitzgerald. Ms Ingham thought, however, that it would be more effective to be practised on the feet rather than the hands. After extensive research, she developed the map of the entire body on the feet – where one point on the foot corresponds to a certain part of the body. By using acupressure or massage techniques on these points, a positive effect is created in the corresponding body part.

Eunice Ingham spent 30 years travelling around America teaching her reflexology first to medical staff, and then to non-medical practitioners. Modern Western reflexology uses the charts and theories developed by her and now called the Ingham Method. Ingham’s work is carried on by the International Institute of Reflexology.

Today there are many reflexology organisations worldwide. Over the last 20 years training standards and methods of practice have developed and become more sophisticated in the requirements for the professional practice of reflexology.

It is understood that reflexology is a holistic therapy. It is important as well to see reflexology as a complementary therapy, for the reflexologist to work with conditions that patients present and to have a collaborative relationship with the medical profession in the care and outcomes of treatment for the their patients.