When first approaching
the idea of reflexology you may believe it to be the creation of the New Age
movement, firmly situated within our modern world as an invention of it.
However, this does not appear to be the case. Reflexology in its broadest sense
was first recorded by the Ancient Egyptians in hieroglyphs painted on the walls
of Ankmahor’s Tomb in 2330 BC. Ankmahor was a physician at the time and
although we can’t pin down exactly how his form of reflexology worked we do
know it resembled other forms of reflexology in that it dealt with the hands
Ancient Egyptians may have spread the practice of reflexology (through the Roman Empire) to quite a wide range of geographical locations and cultures but there’s no solid proof they invented the practice. If anything it seems it may have been invented and reinvented by several cultures across the globe who probably weren’t in contact with each other. For instance, in 1000 BC the Chinese began their own written tradition of reflexology in a chapter of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. The chapter was titled “Examining the Foot Method,” and this is the first instance we can point to where there is mention of the points of the feet being connected to the life force.
Although the practice remained popular in China, and parts of what was once the Roman Empire, it didn’t gain notoriety in the more Northern provinces of Europe until famed explorer Marco Polo translated a Chinese text into Italian sometime in the 1300s, where it again spread like wildfire over another large swath of area and cultures. By 1582 the practice was known well enough to be included in the medical texts of Dr. Adamus and Dr. A'tatis. They however were calling it Zone Therapy, which although related eventually evolved into a distinct practice over time.
In the United States, Reflexology remained a hidden skill kept by several indigenous tribes of Native Americans. Their traditions were completely oral so there’s no way of knowing how far they go back or if they were at all related to the practices seen in Ancient Egypt or Ancient China. Still, historians and anthropologists didn’t take any real note of it and it wasn’t until 1917 when it caught on in the colonized parts of the United States. This is when Dr. William H. Fitzgerald started to use it to ease the pain of surgery patients. He’s sometimes called the Father of Reflexology but really he was just one person in a long line of personalities to hone the general belief into a more concise practice. He made reflexology into a system, using ten vertical zones to correlate to various parts of the body. It’s not completely clear where he got his ideas but it may have been when he was studying abroad in Vienna. He popularized his own system by publishing a book titled Zone Therapy or Relieving Pain in the Home (later retitled: Zone Therapy or Curing Pain and Disease) Dr. Shelby Riley later added horizontal points to this charting and reflexology as we know it today came into existence. He was however not alone in his efforts as he was helped immensely by a physiotherapist by the name of Eunice Ingham who painstakingly charted an even more detailed map of corresponding glands and internal organs. She spent the remaining forty years of her life spreading the word in any way she could, including many lectures and two books, Stories the Feet Can Tell and Stories the Feet Have Told.
Currently the practice continues to evolve and turn into several distinct systems and processes. In 1957 Dr. Paul Nogier even added to the known foot and hand chart, claiming the ears also had sensitive pressure points. Not everyone agrees with this and you’ll still find variations of these two different ideas. In our modern world it seems as if reflexology isn’t going anywhere and will probably happily continue to become something even greater and more complex than before as it helps people heal, reduce stress, and ease pain along the way.
homesteading blogger of Tales from the Birdello
author of New England travel blog Catching Marbles