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The women who in 1914 successfully completed the school of massage’s first course were (from left): Elizabeth Washer, Frances Skevington, Edith Thomson, Ellen Smith and Flora Gray. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, New Zealand Society of Physiotherapists Otago Branch records, 88-086, S16-503d.

2016 marks 25 years since the Otago Polytechnic and University of Otago launched a new conjoint degree course in physiotherapy, and 20 years since the university became solely responsible for that degree. In transferring to the university from the polytechnic the school of physiotherapy was returning to its origins, for it started out in 1913 as the University of Otago’s school of massage.

The profession of physiotherapy has interesting beginnings. As Louise Shaw explains in her excellent history of the Otago school (In our hands: 100 years of the School of Physiotherapy in Otago 1913-2013), physiotherapy developed in the early 1900s by combining three distinct areas of therapy: massage, physical agents (especially electricity, light and water) and medical gymnastics. A wide range of practitioners offered these treatments. To cite just one example, in 1880s and 1890s Dunedin, John Jenkins offered electrical and magnetic treatment at his Magnetic and Galvanic Healing Institute.

Doctors were wary of these other health practitioners. That was partly because their popular services provided competition to conventional medical practice, but they also held genuine concerns for public well-being, as a few of the practitioners were undoubtedly ‘quacks’ out to make a quick income from dubious treatments. But doctors gradually gained appreciation for the obvious benefits of these treatments, particularly therapeutic massage, which started to become available under medical supervision in the larger hospitals in the 1890s and 1900s.

A number of massage therapists (known as masseurs if male or masseuses if female) in New Zealand had undergone some sort of formal training overseas and had certificates to prove it. Some belonged to the Australasian Massage Association, established in 1906 by the amalgamation of associations in Victoria and New South Wales. The association promoted the professionalisation of massage therapy, including the establishment of diploma courses at Australian universities. Although a few private individuals offered courses in New Zealand, none survived long and there was a need for better training. In 1912 the medical association, keen to improve and/or control standards within this developing field, asked the University of New Zealand senate if it would approve of a massage course at Otago medical school. Early in 1913 the senate let the University of Otago know that ‘owing to the importance of massage in the treatment of certain diseases’ it would approve Otago ‘granting certificates for proficiency in massage’ and the medical school agreed to the scheme, designing a syllabus closely based on the Australian model. In the meantime, in 1912 Auckland Hospital set up a course based on the British model, whereby nurses had their training extended for a year to include training in massage; this programme continued until 1922, awarding over a hundred massage certificates. Nurses at Dunedin Hospital also received some training in massage, though this was not recognised with any certificate. During the same period the Department of Health began moves to set up a register of massage therapists.

Massage Institute

The Booths’ ‘Massage Institute’ offered the latest treatments using electicity, galvanism, water, air and massage. Edwin Booth later became a masseur at Dunedin Hospital and served as clinical tutor to the university’s first class of massage students. Advertisement from the Otago Witness, 6 August 1902, courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

The Otago course got underway in the middle of 1913. The 18-month programme included six months of anatomy, physiology and massage courses followed by a year of public hospital instruction, supplemented by lectures on theoretical and practical medical electricity, applied massage and medical gymnastics. Lizzie Armstrong was appointed as the university’s first massage instructor; she had extensive experience in massage practice and instruction in Sydney and had also travelled to England to observe treatments and training there. She was already a masseuse at Dunedin Hospital; she had offered her services there earlier in 1913, and had been advising the medical school on its new course. Hospital radiologist and medical electrician Percy Cameron was appointed to teach medical electricity, William Newlands as anatomy lecturer, and the home science professor, Winifred Boys-Smith, agreed to teach physiology in a combined massage and home science class. The medical school professors oversaw the anatomy and physiology training. Stuart Moore was later appointed as lecturer in applied massage and medical gymnastics.

Eight students signed up for the university’s first massage course, but it had teething problems, many of them due to hurried planning (or lack of it). Home science students had already completed half their physiology course and an extra tutor had to be appointed for the massage students. Lizzie Armstrong ended up in a prolonged dispute with Edwin Booth, who had been a masseur at Dunedin Hospital since 1908 and was upset at her appointment as instructor, a position which was not advertised. The original idea for the students to complete their hospital training at various centres did not eventuate and, after considerable negotiation, they were allocated between the three Dunedin Hospital massage therapists. By then two students (including the only male) had dropped out of the course. Just one student, a man with several years of practical massage experience, enrolled for the second course, which commenced in May 1914.

In August 1914 instructor Lizzie Armstrong resigned to return to Sydney; soon afterwards she headed to London, offering her skills to the Red Cross for war work. Final exams were brought forward so she could assist with the examination, but the students were left to muddle along without having completed the full required period of practical training. The war also put a stop to the passage through parliament of legislation for the registration of masseurs; it had already been held up due to opposition to a clause that required masseurs to undertake all treatment under the authority of a medical practitioner. Since the government did not yet have the authority to examine or certify massage therapists, the university awarded its own certificate of proficiency to the five women who successfully passed their exams in 1914.

In 1915, apparently to the relief of the university, the Otago Hospital Board took responsibility for the administration of the school of massage. It continued that role until 1976, when physiotherapy education was transferred to Otago Polytechnic. But the university did retain a hand in the training of physiotherapists, as they were increasingly known, through this 60-year period, because it continued to provide their anatomy and physiology courses.

Anybody who serves as guinea pig for a new venture deserves recognition, but I think the five women who completed the first Otago school of massage course really deserved a medal! Two of them, Edith Thomson and Flora Gray, did receive another sort of medal – the British War Medal. Along with Ruby Millar, who completed the hospital-run course in 1916, they served as masseuses with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service during World War I. The injuries of war highlighted the usefulness of physiotherapy, as did the treatment of polio victims (there was an outbreak of polio in Dunedin during the clinical training of the first school of massage class, followed by a national epidemic the following year). The status of the profession was assured when the Masseurs Registration Act was finally passed in 1920.