As we take a moment this Memorial Day to celebrate individuals who have sacrificed their lives defending this country, let’s also not forget about those who put broken soldiers back together following the Great War, and helped to give birth to modern physical therapy as we know it.
Modern PT actually dates to a little before World War I, having been established in Britain in the late 1800s. Not too much later, however, the movement began to take hold here, as surgeons started using young women trained in massage, remedial exercise and phys ed to treat children afflicted with polio, according to the medical library at Washington University in St. Louis.
But the industrialization of PT really began to take hold in the teens, as soldiers began returning home from WWI with physical ailments of all sorts. At that time, orthopedic specialists recruited women to help assist in bringing vets back to their previous level of physical function, according to the library. By 1918, such civilian “reconstruction aides” were assigned to a newly formed Division of Special Hospitals and Physical Reconstruction, part of the Army’s Office of the Surgeon General.
As the movement continued to take hold in the U.S., Walter Reed Army Hospital in the District of Columbia, established the nation’s first physical therapy school, and 14 others followed suit. Washington University, where I gathered some of this information, didn’t establish its own program until 1933.
The burgeoning profession grew further from the war, as these reconstruction aides established their first professional association in 1921, calling themselves the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association. The effort started with just 274 members, but has today grown to more than 90,000, according to the group, which now calls itself the American Physical Therapy Association.
Mary McMillan, a reconstruction aide trained extensively in physical therapy in British hospitals before making her way to the states in 1915, served as the initial leader of the APTA, according to the U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. As the first physical therapist with the Army, McMillan reported to the Walter Reed General Hospital in early 1918. There, she had little space to operate, often administering treatments to patients in hospital wards or conducting group exercises on the facility’s porch.
By spring of that year, however, McMillan had her own clinic at the hospital, equipped with a gym, hydrotherapy section, several treatment rooms and office space. Her counterparts at other hospitals weren’t so lucky, according to the Office of Medical History, with some forced to practice in basements or other less desirable areas of hospitals.
But, as the number of soldiers trickling home from the Great War grew, more and more hospitals equipped themselves with physical therapy facilities, and workers to go with them. Reconstruction aides proved essential in helping vets get back on their feet, according to one medical officer who served in PT clinics at three different hospitals during WWI.
“I have never known of anything approaching the devotion of these girls to their work,” C.M. Sampson said back then, according to the Office of Medical History. “They worked hard all day, attended lectures on technic after hours, held quizzes during the noon hour and in the evenings and could be found in the clinic until late hours trying out technics one upon the other. No corps ever displayed greater loyalty, more unselfishness, greater devotion to duty or a better general high average of efficiency, from the chief aide to the humblest assistant aide, than did the reconstruction aide body during the heaviest work of the reconstruction period. Their esprit de corps became a thing remarked upon by all who observed their work.”
(Top): WWI soldiers used needlework as a form of occupational therapy at one hospital in 1918 (Library of Congress); (Bottom left, clockwise): Mary McMillan, wearing her reconstruction aide uniform; a line of reconstruction aides, who usually learned military drills before getting sent off overseas to Army hospitals, July 1918 in New York; reconstruction aides treat soldiers at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 1919 (all courtesy of the American Physical Therapy Association).