The History of Massage

The history of massage goes back into the ancient past. There are references of it among the records – written and oral, of many different civilizations.


The Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians and the Hindus all provide indications of a form of massage in place as adjutant to or an integral part of medical treatment. Egyptian tomb paintings depict people receiving a massage. Around 3000 BC the Chinese had made it part of a general fitness and health program.

The most well-known of these references to the use of massage during this period is the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (ca. 2,700 B.C.).

It notes: “When the body is frequently startled and frightened, the circulation in the veins and arteries ceases, and disease arises from numbness and the lack of sensation. In order to cure this one uses massage and medicines prepared from the lees of wine.” The book recommends the following approach: “breathing exercises, massage of skin and flesh, and exercises of hands and feet” as the appropriate treatment for -complete paralysis, chills, and fever.”

In 1800 B.C. Hindu writings indicated massage was part of as system of treatment involving such things as weight loss, combating fatigue and aiding sleep. The Hindus writings indicate massage was also a tool in relaxation. We know more, however, about the use of massage therapy in Classical Greece.


The Greek word for massage was anatripsis. The Greeks recognized massage in helping battle problems of fatigue and muscle pain among soldiers. They found it to ease the pain and release tension during training. They also applied to athletes both pre and post tournaments. Herodicus was the first Greek physician to implement massage as a medical treatment. He claimed it helped to prolong life.

In his practice, Herodicus used massage together with herbs and oils. His student, the “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates (460 – 380 B.C.), claimed massage improved the function of joints and increased muscle tone. He felt the best way to massage a person was towards the heart.

Hippocrates mentioned massage several times in his writings. His most quoted references are found in “On surgery” and “On articulations.” In the former, he states “Anatripsis [massage or rubbing] can relax, brace, incarnate, attenuate: hard anatripsis braces, soft anatripsis relaxes while much anatripsis attenuates and moderate rubbing thickens. In the latter he writes: “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing (anatripsis), for things which have the same name have not always the same effects. For rubbing a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid.”


Carrying on from the Greek implementation of massage were the Romans. Their word for massage was frictus translated as “a rubbing”. Both Julius Caesar and Pliny were the recipients of massage therapy. Julius Caesar required massage to relieve neuralgia and headaches. Pliny sought relief for his asthma. Aulus Cornelius Celsus (ca 25BC – ca 50 A.D.), a Roman physician, utilized massage in his own practice. His works De Medicina, denote the significance of massage.

Of the 8 volume set, several volumes spend time discussing the use, methods and typology of massage or rubbing. He claimed it healed paralysis. He also noted its use in helping with headaches. Galen, court physician to two Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus, another also discussed the uses and importance of rubbing in his medical publications.


The following centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire were not kind to massage therapy or many other types of medical procedures. The Dark Ages or Medieval times saw little advancement made in these areas. Furthermore, the application of massage required hands actually touching flesh. This was too worldly and too sensual for the religious minded and ruled world of the period. The only exception to this approach was found in the Middle East and other non-European countries.

Of particular note in the development of massage in its medical sense was the man known in Europe as Avicenna (980-1037). This Persian physician, Ali al-Husayn Abd Allah Ibn Sinna was a prolific author of both medical subjects and philosophy. He also wrote books of poetry and theology. Avicenna noted the object or purpose of massage was “to disperse the effete matters found in the muscles and not expelled by exercise.”

In the Renaissance, massage began to become more acceptable. This was specifically true among the royal households of the time. By the 16th century, Ambroise ParĂ© (1510 – 1590), a French barber-surgeon, was using it as part of his medical practice. He became the official surgeon to four Valois kings: Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. His work in this and other medical fields provided credibility to the art and science of massage. Massage continued to sputter through the 16th and into the following century. Little, however, was undertaken to advance it in form or theory. In the 1700s, it made its greatest advancement, one that was to affect the formation of modern massage therapy. In this era, two men stand out prominently. They are Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) and John Grosvenor (1742-1823).

THE 1800S TO 1900S

Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish born doctor, educator and poet, established a gymnastics training program utilizing massage as a key component. The school he founded in 1813 was the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm. The method was medical gymnastics known as the Swedish Movement Cure. Ling borrowed much of his techniques of massage from the Turks. There are also aspects of Chinese, Egyptian, Greek and Roman techniques. His new creation became known first as the Swedish Movement System or Swedish Gymnastic Movement System. It later gained the misnomer of Swedish Massage.

At the same time Ling began work on his inclusion of massage as part of a healthy life style, Grosvenor wrote and spoke about the use of massage as part of medical treatment. He felt the application of massage therapy produced positive healing affects in specific medical problems. He saw it relieving the difficulties of stiff joints and muscles. He said it was effective in such conditions as gout and rheumatism.

In the 19th century, a Dutchman and doctor, Johan Georg Mezger of Holland (1839-1909) created the final steps to the system developed by Ling. He provided the French names used in what is now Swedish Massage. Ling did not have specific terminology to describe the techniques he used. Mezger did. He applied French names to the specific strokes. As a result, of the efforts of him and his students, Swedish Massage (Classic Massage in Sweden) has the following terminology: effleurage, petrissage, friction and tapotement.

In the United States, two brothers, both physicians, introduced the practice of massage. They were George Henry Taylor (1821-1826) and Charles Fayette Taylor (1826-1899). Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in Philadelphia and Dr. Douglas Graham of Boston also provide support. Graham published several articles on of the topic. He also published one of the earliest books on the topic in 1884.Recent Developments in Massage came out in 1893.

During the late 1800s and into the 1900s, further advancements ensured the survival of massage as a respectable medical treatment. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) of Battle Creek Sanitarium used massage and hydrotherapy in his treatment. He published a treatise: The Art of Massage in 1895. A year earlier, several women founded the Society of Trained Masseuses in Britain. It provided standards for study and the prerequisites for massage education.


Further developments and works on the subject of massage therapy followed. Sigmund Freud implemented massage in his treatment of hysteria. Sir William Bennett established a department of massage at St. George’s Hospital in London, England in 1899. St. Thomas’s Hospital in London was to retain a massage department until 1934.

In the early 20th century, massage therapy became part of a variety of treatments. Sir Robert Jones, Director of Special Military Surgery Hospital in London, encouraged the use of massage. He felt it helped to alleviate pain assisted in improving circulation, reduced incidences of edema and promoted the healthy sustenance of tissues. By the end of WWI, Kurre W. Ostrom had published his book on Swedish Massage (1918).

Various types of systems of massage began to emerge during the early to mid 20th century. Jiro Murai developed the Japanese form of Massage called Jin shin jyutsu and Mary Lino Burmeister introduced it to the American public in the 1960s. Janet Travel began to explore Trigger Point Massage in the 1950s, publishing her manual with David Simons in 1983.

Ida Pauline Rolf (1896-1979) published in 1963 her book on Structural Integration (SI), creating and promoting the massage method called Rolfing. Francis Tappan (1915-1999) published her work along with the pair of Gertrude Beard and Elizabeth Wood. Their work, the celebrated book, Massage: Principles and Techniques has become a classic textbook since its publication in 1964.


Today, massage therapy is clearly distinguished from simple massage. Sensual and sexual massage still retain a high profile in the mind of the public, but it is no longer assumed a massage treatment is something covert. Massage therapy is truly coming into the respectability it deserves. It is returning to the position of esteem it once held.

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