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Massage Today

September, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 09

The Life of Per Henrik Ling

By Judi Calvert, LMP
In the early 1800s, Peter Henry Ling (also Per Henrik Ling) was perhaps the first to discover what countless
others have since learned in the past centuries: massage is critical for healing pain.
Though somewhat controversial, Ling is widely considered the "Father of Massage". Lings life work was
developing a series of gymnastic movements to help relieve chronic pain. Like many massage therapists and
body workers today, he used his own experience with pain and injury to create styles and techniques that
formed the foundation of his practice and, ultimately, of massage itself.
Ling was born on Nov. 15, 1776 in Smaland, Sweden. His father was a so-called curate, a member of the
clergy in charge of the town parish. Ling was a devoted student who spent his days studying with a strict
tutor before attending school in the town of Vaxjo.
After he left school, he continued to study while traveling the country. At times he was reduced to poverty,
and eventually returned to Smaland, where he passed his theological examinations in 1797. For the next
three years, he served as a tutor for several families.
In 1800, he left Sweden to travel internationally. It was a different kind of education for the accomplished
scholar, and he was exposed to experiences that helped shape his life. He learned to speak several
languages, and even took part in a naval battle as a volunteer on a Danish ship. When chronic pain and
financial troubles forced him to return to Sweden, he continued his education by studying the art of fencing.


Ling had a passion for his newfound skill. Yet he realized

that, though fencing was a valuable fitness exercise, it alone couldnt heal his body. Despite his youth, he
was afflicted by physical problems such as rheumatism and lung disease, and had developed gout in his arm.
He began doing a series of passive movements that involved stroking, pressing and kneading the body.
Eventually, he noticed that they had a positive effect on his health.
Ling saw potential in these movements, which he called medical gymnastics, and wanted to educate people
on his "suitable systematized exercises." He felt that, by performing these movements, the body and the
mind would feel whole.
He not only believed that anatomy and physiology were the "necessary basis of gymnastics" but also that the
effects the movements produced upon the "body and psychological condition of man" must be studied in
great detail. He set out to do just that, and founded the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute in 1813.
Ling truly cared about helping people, and devoted the rest of his life to building on the system he had
created. Like therapists, teachers and educators today who have spent many years in the field, he undertook
his work because he recognized the value of touch. He never gave up on his values, and was dedicated to
undertaking his study "by the most careful and untiring analysis of details."
He was praised for his personal qualities as well. Mathias Roth, one of Lings students, wrote: "Ling was a
man of high moral tone, pious, sincere, honest in all his dealings with his fellow man. His intellectual
powers were of a very high order; he loved with the same energy with which he worked, the objects of his
home-affections, his friends, the poor, his country, and mankind."


Father of Massage?
Many of the books written during the 1800s pay tribute to Ling as a groundbreaker. But was Peter Ling the
Father of Massage, or simply the founder of medical gymnastics? Or was he both? The question lingers as
to whether he outright created the techniques or if he gleaned information about these movements from what
practitioners in other countries had been doing for centuries.
In Axel V. Grafstroms 1898 A Text Book of Mechano-Therapy (Massage And Medical Gymnastics), he
calls Ling the "father of mechano-therapy," rather than the Father of Massage.
But Nellie Elizabeth Macafee, an RN who wrote Massage: An Elementary Textbook For Nurses in 1920,
was unequivocal in her deference to Ling, saying that his genius lay in "systematizing both massage and
gymnastics and influencing both physicians and laymen in Sweden and other countries to such an extent that
all recent elaborations claim to have as their origin The Ling System, if they wish to emphasize their
superiority over other methods."
In the 2010 edition of his book, Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage, Mark F. Beck wrote, "Per
Henrik Ling is known as the father of physical therapy." He continues: "Per Henrick of Sweden developed
medical gymnastics later known as the Swedish Movement Cure and the precursor to Swedish Massage."
Indeed, it has been written in several books that Ling enfolded massage into his movements, but that it was
only a small part of the overall treatment.
Lings system addressed the mechanical aspect of movement, provided a curative outlet in the form of
medical gymnastics and included passive movements that were later known as massage. And though he
devoted his life to his system, he left little written record of it. However, its clear from what he did write
that the manipulations of friction, kneading, stroking, cupping, clapping and others were included within the
exercise system known as medical gymnastics, though he did not refer to it as massage or rubbing.
In 1986, Patricia Benjamin, former historian for the American Massage Therapy Association, discovered
from translations of Lings Notations to the General Principles of Gymnastics, that no French terms related
to massage were used by Ling or the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute, implying that Lings movements
were not, in fact, intended strictly as massage techniques.


Benjamin found that the French terms effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement, along with friction used by
massage therapists today, did not originate with Ling. Instead, they are attributed to Dutch practitioner
Johann Georg Mezger (1817-1893). Mezger and his followers organized the manipulations into simpler
divisions and labeled them with the French terms.
However, Benjamin wrote that "Lings medical gymnastic system was the seed of Swedish massage brought
to this country in the early nineteenth century."
Though Benjamins scholarship seems to disprove the idea that Ling was the sole founder of Swedish
massage, its clear that his work laid the foundation for those who came after him. He will be remembered
for bringing together many of the techniques we now categorize as Swedish massage, regardless of whether
he is considered its founder. He demonstrated that gymnastic movements could be a critical remedy for
health problems and was dedicated to helping people in pain.
Ling discussed his lifes work on his deathbed until the very last hour, giving instructions to his pupils about
the science to which he devoted his life. He died on May 3, 1839. Massage wouldnt be what it is today
without his remarkable contributions, and he is a man who should be remembered.
1. Kleen E. Handbook of Massage 1892.
2. Taylor GH. Exposition of The Movement-Cure 1860.
3. Calvert R. The History of Massage 2002.
4. Grafstrom AV. Text of Mechano-Therapy (Massage And Medical Gymnastics) 1898.
5. Macafee NE. Massage An Elementary Textbook For Nurses 1920.
6. Beck M. Theory & Practice of Therapeutic Massage Fifth Edition 2010.

Click here for more information about Judi Calvert, LMP.

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