How did reflexology Evolve?

It is widely believed that reflexology originated in ancient Egypt around 5000 year ago due to numerous paintings found in the tomb of the physician Ankmahor. The paintings document what many interpret as an early example of hand and foot reflexes being worked. Famously one inscription reads, ‘Don’t hurt me’ and the practitioner replies, ‘I shall act so you praise me’. However, though historically important, for the verifiable origins of reflexology we must look to early Chinese and Indian practitioners who were beginning to document their understanding of the healing potential created by working on the hands, feet and ears. Other historical evidence suggests that developments also took place in a wide range of cultures including amongst Buddhist Monks in Asia and in the ancient Inca civilisation of South America. 

In modern Europe however, early pioneers demonstrating an understanding of rudimentary reflexology included Sir Henry Head who was an English neurologist. In 1893 he proved the neurological link between applying pressure to the skin and our internal organs, by evidencing that applying massage to painful areas could promote healing. In 1898 he published his findings stating that, “Zones on the skin become hypersensitive to pressure when an organ connected by nerves to this skin region was diseased”. These zones were later known as ‘Head’s Zones’ or ‘zones of hyperalgesia’.

Dr William Fitzgerald, an American laryngologist, has long been accredited as one of the main pioneers of modern reflexology with his experimental work around Zone Theory in the 1900’s. Born in 1872, Fitzgerald initially studied medicine at the University of Vermont, before practising in London, Paris and Vienna. He was already aware that Native American people were applying pressure to reflex points in order to aid healing and relieve pain, and whilst in Vienna he learnt about the research of Dr. Harry Bond Bressler who had treated organs using pressure points. Later whilst working in London, Fitzgerald researched pain relieving techniques and discovered that by applying pressure to the hand he could create a local anaesthetic effect elsewhere in the body. Along with conventional surgical clamps, he also used various household tools (including clothes pegs, aluminium combs and elastic bands) to apply pressure to the hands in the zones that corresponded with specific parts of the body that he wished to work on. Fitzgerald called his findings, ‘Zone Analgesia’.

Chiropractor, Dr Joseph Riley and his wife were students of Fitzgerald and they built on his research by documenting horizontal zones across the hands and feet, producing detailed diagrams of the reflex points in the process.  Riley went on to write twelve books on the subject, including ‘Zone Therapy Simplified’ (1919) and introduced ‘hook work’ in to reflexology practise, whereby the fingers are used in a hooking motion to access reflex points under tissues and muscles.

The woman fondly referred to as ‘the Mother of Modern Reflexology’, Eunice D. Ingham was a physical therapist working alongside Dr Riley when she became fascinated by Zone Theory. During the 1930’s she had ample opportunity to develop this theory on the feet, with the hundreds of patients that she was treating. Following meticulous research and practical application she concluded that foot reflexes accurately mirrored the organs and structures of the body. In 1938 she published her seminal work, ‘Stories The Feet Can Tell’, which was widely sold and translated, thus spreading the news of her work globally. In the 1950’s Ingham’s nephew Dwight Byers began helping her with her work and teachings and by 1961 her niece had joined them and the ‘National Institute of Reflexology was formed in America. In 1963 Ingham published, her follow up book, ‘Stories the Feet Have Told’.

Doreen Bayly studied under Ingham in America and then pioneered her reflexology approach in Britain during the 1960’s. Bayly did much to promote awareness of the therapy, especially in the U.K. and founded the ‘Bayly School’ in 1978, which was the first reflexology school in the British Isles and is still going strong.

Reflexology as a complimentary therapy is unlikely ever to remain at a standstill developmentally. Whilst generations of pioneers have unlocked much of its core potential, then developed and finely tuned its techniques, future generations will no doubt adapt, blend and make new discoveries for themselves.

Here at Hollytree Holistics we're always happy to meet new clients and offer short taster sessions if you'd like to try reflexology for yourself.