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The Beginning: The Far East


Cultures in India, Japan, China, Egypt and Europe have worked on the feet since the beginning of time. Their early work eventually developed into what we call ‘reflexology’ today.


Early Egyptian papyrus and wall paintings depicted medical practitioners treating the hands and feet of patients. The earliest record, dating back to 2300 B.C.E., was discovered in the Physician’s Tomb of Ankhmahor in Saqqara, Egypt. (Ankhmahor was the highest-ranking official after the King.) The hieroglyphics seen in Ankhmahor’s wall painting translate to “Don’t hurt me” and the response, “I shall act so you praise me.” 


In China, Under Emperor Hwang, reflexology was practiced 4000 years ago, as part of acupuncture and moxibustion, to diagnose and treat ailments. It is described in the Chinese medical text, the Nei Ching (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine), where it is called the ‘Examining Foot Method’.



Reports from travelers created a curiosity about the Eastern cultures in Europe.  Between 1275 and 1292, Italy’s Marco Polo traveled widely within China.  He translated the text Cheng Lan Chin Ching which, amongst other things, introduced Chinese massage (Tuina) and reflexology to the western world. Dominican and Franciscan missionaries followed and are thought to have brought additional medical information back to Europe.


Zone therapy, out of which grew reflexology, became widely known and practiced in Europe by both health care practitioners and the general populace. Numerous books were published in Germany introducing new thoughts and findings that contributed to the understanding of zone therapy. 




Although reflexology originally earned recognition in Russia for its psychological benefits it has been pursued at least since the late 1800's from both a psychological and physiological point of view. Russia accepts reflexology as an effective complement to traditional medicine, and has successfully used reflexology to address asthma, influenza, obstetrics, tinnitus, cerebral palsy, and low back pain.




Much of our scientific understanding of reflexology is owed to Sir Henry Head and his peers who founded the Neurological Society of London. By charting the reflex action between skin sensitivity and internal disease the scientists of the late 1890’s conclusively proved the neurological relationship that exists between skin and internal organs.


Sir Charles Sherrington, who with Edgar Adrian earned a Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of the nervous system, proved that the entire nervous system adjusts to a single stimulus in its effort to coordinate all the activities of the organism. Edgar Adrian discovered that the intensity of the nerve impulse depends, not on the strength of the stimulus, but on the size of the nerve.  Those discoveries have played an important part in our understanding of how pressure on reflexes on the hands and feet can affect the functioning of the entire body, and that pressure need not be painful to be effective.


North America

Like other traditional cultures around the world, many of the First Nation Tribes of Canada and the United States Native American tribes have applied pressure to the feet as a means of healing. The Bear Clan of the Cherokee Nation believes that the feet connect us with the earth, and by this connection the spirit is linked with the universe. To some tribes, footwork is a healing art, used as part of sacred ceremony to heal beyond the physical body.


Modern Reflexology


The practice of reflexology, as we know it in the western world today, was developed by three 20th century medical doctors: Dr. William Fitzgerald, Dr. Joe Shelby Riley and Dr. Paul Nogier, and kept alive by a physiotherapist by the name of Eunice Ingham.


Dr. William Fitzgerald (1872-1942) is considered the modern originator of reflexology. He earned a medical degree from the University of Vermont, practiced in Boston, London and eventually in Vienna, where it is thought he may have become introduced to reflex zone therapy. Upon his return to the United States he took up residency in Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, where he headed the Nose and Throat Department. He used zone therapy as an anesthetic for dental and surgical procedures, as well as treating conditions such as goiter and hay fever. He noted that when pain was relieved, the condition producing the pain was usually also relieved


Fitzgerald claimed to have discovered "Zone Therapy" around 1909, never publishing any reference or credit regarding any preceding work. He divided the body into ten longitudinal lines or zones, and found that working anywhere in a zone affected everything in the entire zone


Dr. Joe Shelby Riley is credited with using Zone Therapy more than any other individual in the United States in the early 1900's. In his published works he drew the first detailed diagrams of the reflex points found on the feet, and claimed horizontal divisions that also govern the body. 


Eunice Ingham (1889-1974) worked as a physical therapist in Dr. Riley's St. Petersburg, Florida office.  She made many contributions to the field, the first one of importance being the separation of work on the reflexes of the feet from Zone Therapy in general. She determined that an alternating pressure, rather than having a numbing, analgesic effect, stimulated healing.


In the early years Dr. Riley and Ms. Ingham worked diligently to prove reflexology's efficacy to the medical profession. Although they admitted that the techniques worked, doctors rejected reflexology, as it was too time consuming, and thus not cost-effective. Ingham's response was her second greatest contribution, and what earned her the coveted title of Mother of Reflexology.  She offered reflexology to the general public and the non-medical community of chiropractors, osteopaths, naturopaths, chiropodists, massage and physiotherapists - a decision that would ultimately be responsible for the widespread popularity and recognition of reflexology today.


In 1957, Dr. Paul Nogier, a neurosurgeon in France, documented a complete reflex map of the human body located on the outer ear. Doctor Nogier is the father of Auriculotherapy, the medical approach to working the reflexes on the outer ear, whereby licensed medical practitioners legally diagnose, prescribe, and use implements to treat specific illnesses.

Back in the United States, California reflexologist and instructor Bill Flocco coined the term 'ear reflexology' in 1982. Flocco reasoned, that since working with fingers and thumbs on the reflexes on the feet is called foot reflexology, and working with fingers and thumbs on the reflexes on the hands is called hand reflexology, then working with fingers and thumbs on the reflexes on the outer ears should be called ear reflexology.




In the United States, the national testing board for reflexology recognizes foot, hand and ear reflexology. As of 2017, 33 states have exempted reflexology from massage laws. North Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Washington and Nevada have written reflexology laws separate from any other discipline. Four states do not regulate reflexology or massage at all.


In 1990 the American Reflexology Certification Board was established as a non-profit corporation to test and certify reflexologists meeting basic standards in competency. It is the only testing agency that is national, non-profit, independent of any teaching organization, and uses a psychometrically based test.


1990 also marked the inauguration of the International Council of Reflexologists when participants from eighteen different countries convened for the first time in Canada as a worldwide professional association. ICR has members in 22 countries on six continents. ICR established the annual World Reflexology Week to provide a structured vehicle in which reflexologists could act locally while producing a global impact.


Forward thinking leaders came together in 1995 to form a non-profit member association dedicated to unifying all American reflexologists for the recognition, excellence and professional strength of reflexology. The national Reflexology Association of America was built on the strength of individual members and affiliated and non-affiliated state associations, of which Florida is one. 


The final arm of the national reflexology organizations emerged in 2016 when the National Council for Reflexology Educators was established to support the needs of reflexology educators by offering educational resources, forums, conferences, online training, and a voice at legislative proceedings.


The above is but a brief synopsis of the global history of reflexology. If you wish to read more, follow this link to purchase ‘Reflexology: Art, Science and History’ and/or ‘Eunice Ingham: A Biography’.

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