Massage is a method of manipulating soft tissue using compression and traction for therapeutic, palliative, and self-care or wellness purposes. The history of massage is long and multifaceted. The next sections include the history of massage in the Modern Era.
The modern era began in the seventeenth century and is the current era; it is also referred to as the Information Age. The modern era has seen the creation of new medical systems that incorporated the anatomic, physiologic, and chemical discoveries of the previous 200 years. During this time, a wide variety of physicians and authors advocated for the use of massage and developed their own systems.
The most famous and enduring influence on massage are contributions made by Swede Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839). Ling accepted a post as gymnastic and fencing master at the University of Lund in Sweden in 1804. He developed his own system of massage and exercises or gymnastics, the latter of which consisted of four types—educational, military, medical, and esthetic. This system was called the Swedish Remedial Massage and Exercise, the Swedish Movement Cure, or the Ling system. Ling quickly gained international recognition, and modifications of his basic concepts have been used throughout the globe. The term Swedish massage was used to describe the massage component of Ling’s system. For this reason, Ling is regarded as the father of Swedish massage.
In 1813, Ling founded the Central Institute of Gymnastics in Stockholm and began teaching his system to others. Physicians could complete the program in 1 year, compared with 2 or 3 years for nonphysicians. By 1839, the year of Ling’s death, 38 schools throughout Europe were teaching his system, including in London, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Vienna, Paris, and even St. Petersburg in Russia. Many of Ling’s original ideas have faded from popularity, but his work remains an important influence in the early development of the physical therapy and massage therapy professions.
Dutch physician Johann Mezger (1839-1909) also developed his own style of massage and made massage a fundamental component of physical rehabilitation. French was the international language in the nineteenth century, and Mezger is credited with introducing the terminology to describe massage techniques (e.g., effleurage, pétrissage, tapotement), which is still used in massage legislation and massage curricula.
Florence Nightingale (1829-1910) of England, founder of modern nursing, assumed patient care responsibilities of the barrack hospitals in Turkey during the Crimean War (1853 to 1856). She developed a standard of care for soldiers, and massage was an integral part of that care. When nurse training was developed, massage was part of the curriculum and instruction and massage was provided to patients as part of their comfort measures. The use of massage declined as the use of analgesics become more popular, and massage was dropped from the nursing curriculum in the 1970s.
World War I provided countless opportunities for the use of massage and exercise to rehabilitate injured soldiers. French physician Just Lucas-Championniere (1843-1913) advocated for the use of massage and passive movements to treat soft tissue injuries, particularly fractures. British physicians James B. Mennell (1880-1957) and Sir William Bennett (1852-1931) were impressed with Lucas-Championniere’s work and they began using massage at the St. Thomas Hospital and the St. George’s Hospital, respectively, both hospitals located in London.
In the United States Drs. George Henry Taylor (1829-1899) and Charles Fayette Taylor (1827-1899) sailed to Sweden to study the Ling system and returned to the United States to open the Remedial Hygienic Institute of New York City in 1856. The institute was essentially an orthopedic clinic that specialized in Ling’s system of massage and exercise, but they incorporated “water cures” into their treatment regimen, as well as the importance of good nutrition. The two physicians published many important works on Ling’s system, and in 1860 George Taylor wrote the first American textbook on the subject entitled An Exposition of the Swedish Movement Cure.
It should also be noted that massage and exercise were referred to simultaneously and little distinction was made between the two. For example, massage and exercise or gymnastics were combined in Ling’s system. It was not until 1886 that massage was separated from exercise. Credit for this distinction is given to two individuals, namely Drs. Emil A. G. Kleen (1847-1923) of Sweden and William Murrell (1853-1912) of England. In fact, Murrell provided one of the earliest definitions of massage in his book entitled Massage as a Mode of Treatment and stated massage is the “scientific mode of treating certain forms of a disease by systematic manipulations.”
American physician Douglas Graham (1848-1928) authored several works on massage, including A Practical Treatise of Massage (1884), which focused on massage for specific conditions. Graham’s definition of massage is “a term now generally accepted by European and American physicians to signify a group of procedures which are usually done with the hands, such as friction, kneading, manipulations, rolling, and percussion to the external tissues of the body in a variety of ways, either with a curative, palliative, or hygienic object in view.” Note that Graham defined massage more comprehensively than Murrell and stated the what (usually done with the hands), the where (external tissues of the body), the how (friction, kneading, manipulations, rolling, and percussion), and the why (curative, palliative, or hygienic).
Norwegian gymnast Hartvig Nissen (1857-1924) opened the Swedish Health Institute of Washington, D.C., in 1883. This is considered the first massage school in the United States. In 1888 Nissen wrote an article entitled Swedish Movement and Massage, which was subsequently published in several medical journals. The result of the publication was numerous letters from physicians who wanted to know more about Ling’s system, and this inquiry led Nissen to publish a book of the same title later that same year. Taken together, Nissen’s and Graham’s works are generally credited with promoting the use of massage within the U.S. medical profession.
While the Taylor brothers, Graham, and Nissen, were advocating for the use of massage within the medical community, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) of Battle Creek, Michigan, promoted massage to the general public.
Kellogg wrote numerous articles and books on massage and published a magazine called Good Health. Kellogg also wrote the Art of Massage: A Practical Manual for the Nurse, the Student and the Practitioner (1929). Kellogg was the director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium founded by members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Under his directorship, massage and hydrotherapy were a central aspect of the health regimen for patrons.
De Domenico, G. (2007). Beard’s massage: Principles and practice of soft tissue manipulation (5th ed.). Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders.
DeDomenico, G., & Wood, E. C. (1997). Beard’s massage (4th ed.). Philadelphia: WB Saunders.
Ernst, E., Pittler, M. H., Wider, B., & Boddy, K. (2006). The desktop guide to complementary and alternative medicine (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Elsevier Mosby.
Kellgren, A. (1890). The technic of Ling’s system of manual treatment. Edinburgh and London: Young J. Pentland.
Lewis, S. L., Dirksen, S. R., Heitkemper, M. M., Bucher, L., & Lewis, I. (2010). Medical-surgical nursing: Assessment and management of clinical problems (8th ed., pp. 94–95). St Louis: Elsevier.
Ruffin, P. T. (2011). A history of massage in nurse training school curricula (1860-1945). Journal of Holistic Nursing, 29(1), 61–67.
Wood, E. C. (1974). Beards’s massage: Principles and techniques (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: WB Saunders.
Dr. Susan Salvo is a massage therapist, author, educator, researcher, explorer, and perpetual student. To learn more, check out the “About Susan” tab. You can contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.