"Physiotherapy is the third largest profession in the healthcare sector throughout the world. It is also one of the most active occupations with regard to professional strategies, in other words efforts to enhance its autonomy and scientific status within the labour market and the educational system.
If one were to consult sociology textbooks to determine how professions operate to defend and maximize their interests, every detail of this behaviour would comply perfectly with the physiotherapy profession. It follows sociological models to the letter, with one exception: physiotherapists rarely use history as a means of legitimating their efforts to achieve their professional ambitions.
Other professions frequently make historical references in their efforts to handle the present, when involved in interprofessional conflicts, for example, or to empower their professional identity. But physiotherapists seldom do, indeed they have even been described as suffering from ‘collective amnesia’.
This article seeks to explore why physiotherapists differ from other professional groups in this respect by asking what has made them step outside the designated ‘toolbox’ of professional behaviour and distance themselves from the ‘power of the past’? And what kind of history is it they have refrained from referring to, or, as will be shown, have even forgotten?
As this article shows, the gender politics of the professional history of physiotherapy are central in attempting to answer these questions. A complex series of gender mechanisms were involved in the creation of a professional discursive framework during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that has subsequently affected the ‘historical consciousness’ of this profession, as will be illustrated.
Hopefully the approach used here can be extended beyond physiotherapy itself to the gendering of professionalization processes per se, specifically that of middle-class women professionals in the late nineteenth century, the gendered division of medical labour and the way in which science became designated a ‘male territory’.
The article challenges the chronological trajectory and age of the physiotherapy profession and the tensions between professional and lay statuses, as well as the conventional wisdom on its gendered origins.
According to the majority of research physiotherapy emerged in most countries around 1900 as a typical semi-profession practiced mainly by women who were largely dependent upon the medical profession. In this respect the founding of the English Chartered Society of Physiotherapy in 1894 is often identified as the first significant milestone. What is claimed here, however, is that these multiple female histories of physiotherapy are actually the result of a single masculine professional project that was displaced and then forgotten due to a long drawn-out professional conflict between physiotherapists and physicians from the mid nineteenth-century onwards.
The following discussion focuses mainly on Sweden due to its important location in the origins of the (masculine) physiotherapy profession but references will also be made to England in order to highlight the particular developments of the early twentieth century. A cross-national approach like this is important firstly for illuminating the unifying masculine origins of the physiotherapy profession and secondly, for explaining why physiotherapists have been relatively uninterested in their past and thus how this profession’s origins have eluded historians and sociologists alike.
As the article indicates, the heavily gendered politics of the physiotherapy profession’s formation consist of two co-existent developments. One may be described as a homosocial process, in other words professional turbulence between men of differing professional scientific backgrounds which led to the demasculinization of physiotherapy as a profession, and the other was as heterosocial, where women competed against men in order to re-legitimize their professional occupation. Both processes of change shared a common denominator: they were governed by a profound dislike of a particular group of men and the sort of masculinity they represented.
The homosocial process is outlined using data mainly from Sweden, and the heterosocial conflicts include examples from England. Though entangled across national borders, the two experiences were initiated separately in these two countries respectively. Combined, they resulted in a severe case of historical amnesia for physiotherapists as the old masculine history was subsumed in a narrative of thoroughgoing feminization.
This article looks first at a brief summary of the history of physiotherapy and presents an account of the now silent masculine history of the profession. It demonstrates the profoundly masculine origins of Swedish physiotherapy through its leading ideologue and Atlas figure Pehr Henrik Ling (1776–1839), before moving onto the internal male rivalry that beset the profession alongside the numbers of women entering the profession.
The study then moves to explore the way in which women were able to appropriate and benefit from later developments in the demasculinization of physiotherapy in the early 1900s before concluding with some observations on the intricate interwoven narrative of the homosocial and heterosocial tensions in the field."
The text above (with my emphasis in bold) is quoted directly from the introduction to Anders Ottosson's new article titled "One History or Many Herstories? Gender politics and the history of physiotherapy’s origins in the nineteenth and early twentieth century". Published this year, it is an extraordinary exploration of the suppressed history of modern Physiotherapy that challenges the professions "collective amnesia".
As a student I recall not one class that taught the history of physiotherapy prior to the growth highlights of World War I and the Polio epidemic. As Ottosson hints, this is likely due to the shame of the "Great Massage Scandal" in London in the late 19th century; that we still seem to be escaping with puritanical zeal.
The historical narrative of the physiotherapy profession is a truly exciting story. From great achievements to gut wrenching scandals, it contains world class innovations, political power struggles, dedicated heroes and arch-enemies. I encourage every physiotherapist and physical therapist to read the article to discover that they do actually have a history, and it is great.
This article first appeared in LinkedIn. Click here to access the full article.