Foot and hand pressure therapy is thought to have been practiced by the Ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago. A similar healing tradition was most likely practiced around the same time in India. This practice may have been introduced to China with the spread of Buddhism. Chinese therapeutic foot work can be traced back to the medical book "Hwang Tee Internal Text", which is attributed to the “Yellow Emperor” who died in 2598 B.C.
Chinese foot pressure therapy was most likely introduced to Europe by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as well as missionaries who travelled to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.). Egyptian methods probably arrived in Europe through Greece and later through the Roman Empire.
The first European texts on pressure therapy appeared in the late 1500s. These texts described the practice of Zone Therapy, which focused on relieving pain with the application of pressure to different zones in the body.
During the 1890s Dr. Alfons Cornelius, a German physician, discovered that medical conditions show themselves as sensitive areas in the skin and musculature. He also found that applying pressure to the sensitive areas, over time, alleviated the pain and stimulated a healing process in the body. The use of pressure as a method of healing became known in Germany around this time as “reflex massage”.
In the United States, during the early part of the 20th century, Dr. William Fitzgerald carried out research on Zone Therapy. He used gadgets to apply pressure to different parts of the body in order to anesthetize another area for minor surgeries. He theorized that the body could be divided into 10 longitudinal zones and that by working anywhere in a zone, the rest of the zone is affected.
Dr. Joe Shelby Riley, who studied Zone Therapy with Fitzgerald, took the discipline further. Riley was the first to make detailed charts of the reflex areas found on the feet and hands. Riley also eliminated the use of tools and developed a manual “hooking” technique to apply pressure.
Eunice Ingham, a physiotherapist working in Riley's office, became interested in Zone Therapy and began, with the encouragement of Riley, to further investigate the relationship between the feet and the entire body. Ingham probed the sensitive spots on clients' feet and carefully observed the correlation between these tender areas and the clients' ailments. She discovered that intermittent pressure, as opposed to constant pressure, stimulated a healing response in the body. Ingham developed a therapeutic “thumb-walking” technique and drew detailed maps of the reflexes of the feet and hands. She worked on hundreds of clients and observed how, time after time, her Reflexology method, as she came to call it, effectively alleviated people's ailments.
Eunice Ingham published two books, "Stories the Feet Can Tell" (1938) and "Stories the Feet Have Told" (1951). She travelled across the United States for thirty years teaching reflexology. Most authors in the field of Reflexology were trained by Eunice Ingham. These include Hanne Marquardt of Germany, Doreen Bayly of England, and Barbara & Kevin Kunz and Mildred Carter of the United States.
Today, the International Institute of Reflexology carries on the work of Eunice Ingham through the direction of her nephew Dwight Byers.
Issel, Christine. "Reflexology: Art, Science & History". 2nd ed. Sacramento: New Frontier Publishing, 1990.