What is the history of reflexology?

Around the world and throughout history, reflexology has been rediscovered time and time again. Archeological evidence points to ancient reflexology medical practices in Egypt (2330 BCE), China (2704 BCE) and Japan (690 CE).

In the West, the concept of reflexology began to emerge in the 19th century with European and Russian research into the nervous system and reflex- think Pavlov. Reflex therapies were created as medical practices but were soon eclipsed by use of surgery and drugs. The ideas of reflex use for health improvement were carried on sporadically and brought to American in 1909 by Dr. William Fitzgerald, an eye-ear and nose specialist from Connecticut. Physiotherapist Eunice Ingham is credited with developing a system of reflex areas by 1938.

In the East, ancient Chinese techniques were re-discovered in the 1980s and have spread throughout Asia creating todays reflexology-rich environment with reflexology paths in parks and a thriving reflexology industry of practitioners, businesses and research.

The History of Reflexology

Foot work practices have existed throughout the history of humankind. Remnants of foot work practices span time and place from the Physicians Tomb in Egypt of 2300 B.C. to the Physicians Temple in Nara, Japan, of 690 A.D. The authors have labeled this pattern as a form of archetype or archestructure. Archetypes are symbolic image(s)…without known origin and they reproduce themselves in any time or in another part of the world–even when transmission by direct descent or cross fertilization through migration must be ruled out Jung, C.G., Man and His Symbols, Dell Publishing Co., 1968, p. 58). An archestructure can now be defined as a felt or perceived function or structural feature of the nervous system, projected or unconsciously acted out in the lifestyle or the beliefs, customs, and social structures of the individuals concerned or of whole communities (Gooch, S.F., Total Man, Ballantine Books, 1972 p. 299).

The modern history of reflexology is rooted in research about the reflex in Europe and Russia 125 years ago. The idea that a stimulus applied to the body produces a response was utilized as a therapeutic tool by British physicians and researchers who applied heat, cold, plasters, and herbal poultices to one part of the body to influence another. While such uses did not take root in the medical communities in the United States and Great Britain, the furthering of such ideas for therapeutic use continued in Germany and Russia throughout this century.

Russian physicians of the early 1900s followed the reflex research of Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov to create reflex therapy. Their basic idea, to influence reflexes and thus brain-organ dynamics, survives as a medical practice today. to physician- researchers, such as Vladimir Bekterev who coined the word reflexology in 1917, an organ experiences illness because it receives the wrong operating instructions from the brain. By interrupting the bodys misguided instructions, the reflex therapist prompts the body to behave in a better manner. Conditioning of better behavior is achieved by the application of a series of such interruptions.

American physiotherapist Eunice Ingham kept alive a specific practice, that of foot reflexology. She accomplished this by traveling around the country teaching groups of people, perpetuating a grassroots enthusiasm for the subject in the United States. A community of reflexology users emerged. Legal questions were raised about the practice of medicine without a license. Ms. Ingham’s book of 1945 ascribed the workings of reflexology to the nervous system. The revised work published in 1954, deleted any such mention. the explanation of the workings of reflexology took on metaphorical terms that were to color the practice for decades to come.

The term reflexology itself was considered illegal until a legal skirmish over the publication of Mildred Carters book Helping Yourself with Foot Reflexology in 1970. The U.S. postal Service asked that the publisher cease and desist publication of the book on the grounds that it consisted of the practice of medicine without a license. The publishers attorneys successfully defended the publication of the book Subsequently the word could be used to describe ones practice; it was also used in the titles of books. The idea became widely disseminated as Mrs. Carters book sold one million copies and became one of the best-selling titles ever for the publisher.

In the following quarter century, the idea gained informal sanctioning in the United States on a community level. Since then, practicing reflexologists have emerged, some 30 reflexology books have been published, and the number of magazine articles published has climbed by 500 percent since 1982. Television appearances by reflexologists have increased by 500 percent since 1988.

From: Understanding the Science and Art of Reflexology, Kevin and Barbara Kunz,Alternative and Complementary Therapies, April/ May 1995, p.183-186


Yes, history can be rewritten. Some twenty-five years after Ed and Ellen Case of southern California discovered the pictograph of work on feet and hands in Egypt, Dr. John F. Nunn becomes the first Egyptologist to acknowledge the pictograph as reflexology. A November 23, 2005 visit to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology on the campus of the University College London in England revealed Dr. Nunns Ancient Egyptian Medicine (The British Museum Press, 1996). Dr. Nunn notes that the work on feet and hands depicted in Ankhmahor’s tomb is a form of physiotherapy. It is again inconceivable that the Egyptians had not discovered the beneficial and pleasurable effects of manipulation and massage… Figure 6.14 shows the remarkable scenes in the tombs of Ankh-ma-hor and Khentika, which appear to represent manipulation of fingers and toes. This could be manicure and pedicure, but the words of the patients and therapists shown in the figure suggest very strongly that a therapeutic effect is intended. Alternatively, it has been suggested that these scenes represent a form of reflexology and current illustration of this type of treatment certainly look remarkably like these tomb reliefs (pictographs from Ankhmahors Tomb and Khentikas Tomb at Saqqara memorializing two viziers to Teti, 6th dynasty (2345-2040)). (p. 133)

The pictograph and accompanying hieroglyphic are the earliest known artifacts of reflexology, and some would argue, one of the earliest of any type of complementary medicine practice. Dr. Nunns work adds to the information about and on-going debate of the meaning of the pictographs. Previously, Egyptologists had argued that the pictograph depicted therapy, an operation, or a pedicure/manicure. (Kunz and Kunz, Reflexions, Vol. 19, Number 2, Spring/Summer 1998, p. 2) Dr. Nunn adds to the mystery of the pictograph. In his discussion of The Healers which includes types of medical practice and the names of known physicians, he notes that Ankhmahor was not a physician but a ka-priest and vizier to the pharaoh Teti. In Notes on ten selected pharaonic doctors, Dr. Nunn, however, discusses Ankh, an individual whose pictograph in Ankhmahors Tomb indicates that he was a physician: We have no knowledge of Ankhs tomb. He is, however, an example of the many doctors known to posterity only because of mention in a relief on the wall of someone elses tomb, in this case a tomb of exceptional interest from the medical point of view. Ankh is seen bearing four ducks as offerings in the funerary procession of the tomb owner Ankh-ma-hor. In front of him in his title and name, swne per aa Ankh. As court physician he might well have been a personal friend of Ankh-ma-hor, or perhaps he was his doctor (or both). Those represented in reliefs were believed to be accessible to the tomb owner in the hereafter, and there might be distinct advantage in having your own doctor with you in the afterworld. An illustration accompanies the discussion: (A) Relief of the physician of the great house (i. e. palace) Ankh as an offering bearer in the tomb of Ankh-ma-hor (6th Dynasty, Saqqara) (p. 126)

Some argue that Ankhmahors tomb in Saqqara has been mislabeled as the Tomb of the Physician. Many agree that the inclusion of pictographs representing medical practices of the time provides invaluable insights of the times. Nunn notes that … Ankhmahor possessed many important titles but none of direct relevance to medicine. Nevertheless, his tomb contains no fewer than seven items of medical interest to us today. (List includes the physician Ankh, circumcision, manipulation of toes and fingers, hydrocele, achonodroplasiac dwarfs, obesity, gynaecomastia)… We are fortunate that Ankh-ma-hor should have chosen to display this remarkable concentration of items of medical interest. There is evidence he went to great trouble in the planning, supervision and even the alteration of the reliefs in his tomb. (p. 126)

It (Ankhmahors Tomb) is popularly known as the Physicians Tomb because although Ankhmahor was not himself a physician his monument contains some interesting scenes of medical practices… Another relief shows a foot operation being performed sited (sic) by many reflexologists as proof of ancient alternative therapies practiced (sic) on the hands and feet. (http://www.egyptsites.co.ul/lower/saqqara/tombs/ankhmahor.html)

Dr. Nunns credentials are noted on his books back cover: Dr. Nunn draws on his own experience as both a doctor of medicine and an Egyptologist to reassess the evidence. he has translated and reviewed the original Egyptian papyri as well as reconsidering other sources of information including skeletons, mummies, statues, tomb paintings and coffins.

The Cases were touring the Papyrus Institute in Cairo when the guide said that youre into foot stuff, you should see this. He then led them to the exhibit from Ankhmahors tomb at Saqqara. The familiar black silhouette of the pictograph was created by an artist commissioned by Jim Ingram. Together with Ed, Ellen and his wife Sally, he co-founded the Foot Reflexology Awareness Association of southern California.

Reflexology in Egypt, History Rewritten VOLUME 26, NUMBER 12, December 2005 Editors: Barbara and Kevin Kunz © 2005 Kunz and Kunz ©Kunz and Kunz 2005

The Reflexology Path kit