Did You Know … Johann Mezger, Massage Therapy Icon

 

Johann Mezger

Johann Mezger (1838-1909) is a central figure in the evolution of massage therapy. Born into humble origins in Amsterdam, he worked in his father’s butcher shop while pursuing education in “medical gymnastics” (study of body movements and exercises and manipulations to rehabilitate movement). Butchering contributed a very real tissue-based appreciation of movement-based structures.

Deciding to go into medicine, Mezger studied at Leiden University. His 1868 thesis was on using friction to treat rheumatic foot problems. Clearly someone with enormous “hands-on” talent, he soon had a thriving practice. Early on, he cured the Crown Prince of Denmark of a painful chronic foot complaint in a manner described this way by Douglas Graham (A Treatise on Massage, 1902): “by means of massage, in a manner somewhat peculiar to himself, and in accordance with the teachings of physiology and pathological anatomy.” Mezger was soon sought out by nobility from across Europe and also by the common people local to his practice in Domberg. Patients came to see him, and he travelled extensively in Europe to provide treatments. He became a celebrity and was known as “the man with the golden thumb.”

Mezger’s therapeutic successes, combined with the credibility of his physician, medical gymnast and manual therapist credentials, gave massage a new level of acceptability, including in the skeptical medical profession. He was extremely influential in bringing massage to a new level of prominence.

Mezger’s therapeutic successes, combined with the credibility of his physician, medical gymnast and manual therapist credentials, gave massage a new level of acceptability, including in the skeptical medical profession. He was extremely influential in bringing massage to a new level of prominence.

Mezger had an exclusively clinical career – he did not work in a hospital, write textbooks or open a school. He did, however, attract many practitioners who mentored under him. These advocates carried his treatment methods around the world, including to North America. Two physicians who studied with him, Helleday and Berghman, brought his techniques home to Sweden where they became merged with medical gymnastics practice and eventually were called “Swedish massage.” Several also described his work in articles and textbooks. One of the best known is Kurre Ostrum, who documented Mezger’s system and elucidated his thinking in Massage and the Original Swedish Movements (1918).

Johann Mezger’s particular genius led to a refinement of massage manipulations that in many ways still stands today. He elaborated and codified the group of techniques (effleurage, petrissage, tapotement and frictions) that are fundamental to Swedish massage. His era was not only a golden moment for massage as respected therapy; it also helped set the foundations for our form of manual practice.

by Debra Curties ’84

Ref:  Benjamin PJ. The Emergence of the Massage Therapy Profession in North America. Toronto: Curties-Overzet Publications, 2015.

 

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