Know Your History: Three Massage Therapy Profession Milestones

Knowing where you came from, the core of your professional identity, provides a strong foundation from which you can move into the future with integrity. Following are three milestone historical moments in the massage therapy profession.


We begin in colonial times. As an occupation, massage therapy dates back to the 1700s, where forerunners of today’s massage therapists were called rubbers. Rubbers were experts in treating orthopedic problems with manual rubbing and friction. You might look at the influence they had on massage therapy this way: They established the occupation from which the profession of massage therapy later developed. 

Medical rubbers were typically women hired by surgeons to assist with the rehabilitation of patients after surgery, and with treatment of lameness and joint diseases. Rubbers had little education, but possessed a knack for hands-on therapy. Their basic techniques were simple, but were modified to produce different effects. Rubbers incorporated joint movements into their treatments to increase range of motion, and to get lame patients walking again. 


The titles masseuse and masseur became common in the 1880s, referring to manual therapists trained in the soft tissue manipulations developed by a European medical doctor named Johann Mezger. Mezger outlined the classic categories of massage techniques: effleurage, petrissage, friction and tapotement. Vibration was added later. Medical gymnasts soon integrated massage into their overall approach, a combination sometimes referred to as mechanotherapy. 

By the early 1900s in America, massage had become the dominant term for manual therapy in general, and masseuse and masseur for hands-on specialists educated in the traditions of Ling and Mezger. Masseuses and masseurs continued to work both within conventional medicine as doctors’ assistants, as well as in private practice as independent practitioners. Ohio was the first state to regulate massage as a “limited branch of medicine,” and Agnes Bridget Forbes became the first licensed masseuse in North America in 1916. 


The terms massage therapy and massage therapist began to replace former designations for the profession in the 1960s. By that time, the titles masseuse and masseur had fallen into disrepute, and massage parlor, once an innocent label for a massage business, alluded to a house of prostitution. In 1958, the AAMM changed its name to the American Massage & Therapy Association, and from that point on encouraged calling the profession massage therapy and practitioners massage therapists. The “&” was dropped in 1983, reinforcing the identity of the unified profession as massage therapy. The term therapy was defined generally as promoting good health and encompassed the whole range of applications envisioned by Ling over a century earlier. The title massage therapist was readily understood by the general public, and helped give the field legitimacy as a health profession.

Read the full story in the Fall 2015 issue of Massage Therapy Journal

"The support I’ve received at the various levels of my career has been key
in helping me get to the place I am today."

Lee S., AMTA member since 1995