Preserving our past: why physio history matters


Australian physiotherapists are among the best in the world. Throughout history, Australian physiotherapists have been leaders in their field and have agitated for change that helped shaped the profession domestically and internationally. So why has the profession been so neglectful of its past? 

The volunteers of the Victorian Retired Physiotherapists group had only been working away for a little under an hour when they unearthed their first gem from a treasure trove of Australian physiotherapy history. Among the faded old photos, the tattered papers and the bound documents surfaced a copy of the minutes from the first annual meeting of the Australasian Massage Association from 1907. The Association had formed the year before, in 1906.

In the tightly typed pages from the meeting at the Royal Exchange Hall in Sydney on 25 April, the Association’s secretary, Frederick Teepoo Hall, discusses why the association has opted to hire a typewriter rather than buy one outright. ‘We cannot get a typewriter for nothing, and so we have to hire one. And no typewriter company in Victoria will let you have a typewriter for less than five shillings a week!’ he declares.

It is but a tiny glimpse into the very earliest machinations of the association, which became the Australian Physiotherapy Association more than 30 years later.

On this day that InMotion observes, the contents of the box the volunteers are examining include a collection of papers and materials that are a window into a bygone era. The dozen or so retired and passionate physiotherapists sorting through the materials at the APA’s national office in Camberwell, Victoria, are compiling and stacking papers, the bound books and bits of memorabilia into various piles for further classification. And overseeing it all is APA Honoured Member Joan McMeeken.

Joan is well known within the APA and with her like-minded peers around the country who are taking up the mantle of gathering, sorting through, logging and categorising the minutiae of life for Australian physiotherapists in the last century. It is an enormous task, one that is, sadly, coming a little too late for some of the precious procurements.

Many of the oral histories that were recorded in the late 1980s are on cassette tape, now too eroded or damaged to be saved. And if any of it can be saved, the costs to convert to the vastly more durable digital format don’t come cheap.

Challenging times

Back in 2012, the APA commissioned professional archivists from The University of Melbourne to undertake a stocktake of all the materials held in the Melbourne storage facility (which holds some materials sent in from other state branches), using documentation provided by the branches. At that time, the archivists commented on the fragility of the documents and the poor quality of their packaging, meaning time was an important factor, especially for the oldest of the materials.

‘You can see why I’m concerned about the way things are kept,’ Joan says. ‘We’ve got one of the earliest international physiotherapy histories here in Australia. Our history formally commenced in 1906. That’s why I say we’re in a situation where we need to do something to appropriately preserve it. And we need to do it now before it is too late.’

In the storage facility in Melbourne are about 50 boxes, just like those being investigated by the volunteers as witnessed by InMotion. The group has so far spent about 500 hours sorting through the contents; they undertake this work when they can, spending up to three hours at a time sorting, labelling and preserving the precious heritage. It’s something they have repeated about 20 times over the last few years. 

While the volunteers are certainly making inroads in many regards, part of the challenge has also been in funding the huge undertaking. And another big challenge has been that each state branch needs similar dedicated volunteers to take up the mantle in their respective state—and there are several branches yet to attract those volunteers. Each state has its own history, which is not only told through the many documents, books and minutes gathered but also in the collective memory of the doyens of the profession from those regions.

An early physiotherapy tool, the caliper stand frame, in use in the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Speaking of the past

In recognising that steps need to be taken now to record more oral histories from the leaders of the profession while they are still alive, a template has been created that the Victorian Retired Physiotherapists group offers to the other states, should they be in a position to undertake the recordings. The Retired Physiotherapists Group of South Australia is keen to be involved, say its chair, APA Honoured Member and former APA national president (1976–77) Pat Trott, and committee member APA Honoured Member Ruth Grant. Both share a commitment to preserving the history of the profession.

In South Australia in the 1980s, a number of oral histories were taken. Pat recalls that in collecting these histories, Renee Swan, who had oversight of the project in South Australia, sought to ensure that all areas of physiotherapy practice were included. This was in order to give a picture of the profession’s development and scope.

‘At that time there were some really outstanding physiotherapists who had contributed so much, not only to South Australia but also nationally and internationally… and I thought, “Oh, this is wonderful to be able to get this recorded.” But it is also important too, for us to keep this going,’ Pat says.

Similar to the work being undertaken in Victoria, the APA South Australian branch has retained much of its history in storage; the vast collection of images, handwritten and typed notes and meeting minutes have been scanned and filed under the auspices of branch manager Caroline Coleman at the behest of retired physiotherapist Mandy Ayers. Mandy and Joan McMeeken were two of the reference committee involved in helping put together The Path to Professionalism by Philip Bentley with David Dunstan, a definitive book that traces the history of the APA to 1984. It was written to mark the APA’s centenary in 2006.

Pat and Ruth say South Australia owes a great debt to Jeanne-Marie Ganne (1923–1997) who wrote the history of the South Australian School of Physiotherapy and of the profession in South Australia in eight volumes. The immense value of these volumes and of the oral histories collected in South Australia was brought home to Ruth when she was asked to write the biographical entry on Elma Casely (a physiotherapy pioneer, 1904–1995) for the Australian Dictionary of Biography ( yha4g4qw). She drew heavily on these resources. In so doing, it highlighted for Ruth the pressing need for their preservation, in particular, the cassette tapes recorded in the 1980s.

Ruth says preliminary discussions with the APA South Australian branch about preserving the tapes have been productive. With 20 cassette tapes to save, cost is a real issue. Although many tapes are in frail condition, on them are the thoughts and experiences of some of the leaders in physiotherapy in both public and private practice, including the man considered the ‘father of manual therapy’, Geoff Maitland (1925–2010) and Alison Kinsman, the chief physiotherapist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for many years. Both Pat and Ruth believe it is imperative to gather more oral histories from the profession’s stalwarts before it is too late.

Our history shunned

While there is evidence of a renewed zeal for preserving the profession’s history around the time of the APA’s centenary—with a flurry of work being undertaken in most states in the two decades from the 1980s to the year 2000—the ensuing decades have seen a marked decline in the levels of enthusiasm previously reached. Most of the progress since has been at the hands of passionate and dedicated physiotherapists who are retired or semi-retired, and who share a common goal despite being in disparate locations around the country. While certainly too many to name individually, this group has been quietly working behind the scenes to garner support—and funding—to preserve the relics from the past.

APA Honoured Member Gwen Jull, in Queensland, is the deputy chair of the Queensland Retired Physiotherapists Group (the chair is fellow APA Honoured Member Robyn Cupit), and she has been involved in charting the profession’s history, in particular the history of education at the University of Queensland (UQ), for many years. Gwen, with Prue Galley (who, in 1975, wrote the case for first contact status for physiotherapists) and Elaine Unkles, compiled a history of physiotherapy at UQ for the university’s 85th anniversary in 2017.

‘The materials collected look at the history of physiotherapy in Queensland literally through the lens of UQ being the first full [physiotherapy] university course both in Australia and in Queensland,’ Gwen says. ‘So our work in recent times has had that bias. We have many photos, documents and stories of life as a student as well as the evolution of physiotherapy education and research at UQ. A great deal of work has gone in to preserving the past for future generations.’

'Most things are not brand new. I think we can learn a lot by looking back.' - Joan McMeekan

Gwen says her interest in physiotherapy history has evolved with age. ‘You really only understand where you’re going if you understand where you’ve come from. And people just don’t know,’ she says. She admits to being frustrated that the history of physiotherapy in Queensland, and around the country, is not more widely known and documented, particularly as a resource for the younger generations of physiotherapists.

‘The history hasn’t been discussed enough. Events such as the first contact ethic that happened in ’76 should almost be a compulsory lecture for undergraduates, it was such a watershed event. I think that if you surveyed all of the current physio students, none or few of them would know about Geoff Maitland for example, yet he was one of the greatest leaders in physiotherapy in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s nationally and internationally,’ she says.

Her sentiments are echoed across in Western Australia, where physiotherapist Glenn Ruscoe, FACP, laments that unlike physiotherapy, most other professions use their history as a form of validation. ‘We not only ignore ours, we actively shun our history,’ he says. They are strong words, however Glenn, who is on the executive of the International Physiotherapy History Association (see previous page), believes the physiotherapy profession is unique in that it has largely turned its back on its own history.

‘It is a shame, because history helps us work out how we came to being where we are. In every single profession, the first unit taught at universities is on the history of the profession. There’s not a single unit taught in any institution in the world about physiotherapy’s history,’ Glenn says. ‘We don’t write about it. We don’t celebrate it. If you look at medicine, for example, they have conferences on their history. We haven’t had any.’

Very little activity has been undertaken in Western Australia to record that state’s physiotherapy history. ‘It’s something we want to do, but we’ve got nothing to write about. It needs someone who wants to bring it together to do it, because at this stage no one wants to bring it together,’ he says.

Preserving this privilege

Over in New South Wales, retired physiotherapist Barbara Dorsch, the chair of the Physiotherapy Emeritus Group (PEG), says there is a collection of materials, including many books and documents, that the group has an interest in preserving for the future generations. The group, which now has more than 80 members, has three lectures a year at the Australian Catholic University at North Sydney. These lectures are open to any physiotherapist, and topics cover all manner of historical and present clinical practices, research and academia.

Barbara says her interest in the history of physiotherapy in New South Wales came about after she became the editor of the New South Wales Bulletin at the time when each state had its own newsletter, before they were amalgamated into a singular national publication, InMotion. Barbara believes it is important to share the historical materials collected in New South Wales and around the country effectively, to help teach the most recent generations of physiotherapists where they are in the continuum.

Barbara also encourages anyone who is retiring or working part- time to join the PEG, and urges young physiotherapists to attend one of the group’s lectures, as well as get involved in preserving the profession’s memorabilia for those who will come after them.

'Physiotherapists today benefit from the pioneering work done by previous generations of practitioners, academics and leaders in the field.' - Maree Webber

In Tasmania, there is a similar need for volunteers to help gather a more comprehensive oral history of physiotherapy, says Maree Webber, FACP, in order to provide an ongoing living history of the profession in the state. After reading The Path to Professionalism, Maree developed a passion for the history of physiotherapy, and was reminded of the wonderful physiotherapists she had worked with in Tasmania in the ’70s and ’80s who have since died.

‘I was fascinated to read of those who had gone before in earlier years to establish the profession in Tasmania,’ Maree says.

‘In speaking with younger physios in Tasmania in the past 10 to 15 years, it is clear that these once- revered and everyday names of leading physios, who were such great mentors and practitioners to so many early- career physios, were not known to the current generation.

‘Changes to buildings and services once named in honour of these physios has disappeared, and the history of how these buildings were named was lost. In many cases the buildings have gone or been repurposed,’ she says. ‘I would like to try to provide some sense of history for current younger physios working in Tasmania, so I developed a short piece of work to accompany the annual forum, based on The Path to Professionalism and some oral history from colleagues.

‘Physiotherapists today benefit from the pioneering work done by previous generations of practitioners, academics and leaders in the field, both in paid work and volunteering their time to deliver a profession with huge scope of practice and a solid evidence base, from its humble beginnings.

‘This did not happen by chance but by hard work, including huge input via volunteering, in establishing and supporting the profession through the APA branches, in hosting national and international conferences and supporting PD and networking events and mentoring young physios,’ Maree says. ‘We have arrived at our privileged position today through the hard work and ongoing effort of all those who have gone before. We need to preserve this privilege and heritage and build on it to continue to benefit future generations of physiotherapists.’

Back in Melbourne, Joan McMeeken has published a history of physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne where Australia’s formal physiotherapy education began in 1906. She hopes that the key materials the APA holds are looked after in a proper archive so that the lessons from the past can benefit future generations. Joan and members of the APA Retired Members group recently met with APA Chief Executive Officer Anja Nikolic (see Final Word article) to discuss how best to progress the preservation of the profession’s past for the future.

‘You see mistakes being made that have been made before and unless you have some idea of what the resolution was for these things, they’ll keep on happening,’ Joan says. ‘Most things are not brand new. I think we can learn a lot by looking back.’

To find out how you can get involved in the preservation of the history of physiotherapy in Australia, contact your state branch office coordinator. Find your local contact at The Path to Professionalism is available for purchase from


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