The physical therapy profession has grown incredibly over the years—and it has evolved quite a bit in the process. From the early days of working with polio-stricken children and war survivors to the vast landscape of clinical and non-clinical positions that PTs hold today, the truth is that modern physical therapy would not be what it is without staunch advocates pushing us toward excellence along the way. There have been plenty of articles celebrating influential PTs in the profession, but we’re taking a different approach. Given that—as noted in our most recent State of Rehab Therapy report—nearly 70% of rehab therapy professionals are women, we’re devoting this article to celebrating eight influential women PTs from history!
1. Mary McMillan
Mary McMillan is often considered the “founding mother” and pioneer of PT as we know it in the United States. McMillan drew upon training and education she received in England and returned to the US to work alongside physical education graduates who were being used to rehabilitate World War I survivors. McMillan leaned into this role and, in 1918, became the very first official reconstruction aide (or “re-aide”) in the US, which eventually led to a leadership role in which she trained other women to become re-aides. Her sparkling personality, warmth, and sense of community are credited for fostering the camaraderie that sparked many women’s initial interest in physical therapy.
The demand for these re-aides skyrocketed during WWI as the polio epidemic took hold, and McMillan saw the need for more structure in the PT profession moving forward. She set to work on four goals:
- Form a national organization.
- Standardize and place PT on a scientific basis in civilian life.
- Provide the medical profession with efficiently trained women for these rehabilitative roles.
- Raise the standards of practice in clinics and general hospitals.
McMillan’s hard work paid off: she helped establish the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association in 1921, and she served as its first president. While that particular name might not ring a bell, its later iteration, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), probably does!
2. Berta Bobath
Berta Bobath grew up in Berlin, Germany, where she spent a number of years passionately immersed in the world of dance and gymnastics. When she was forced to flee her home country in 1938 due to rising antisemitism, she relocated to London, England, where she renewed a friendship with—and wound up marrying—a childhood friend named Karel.
After spending some time teaching gymnastics, she landed a job at a children’s hospital in 1941 and began studying to become a physiotherapist. Bobath spent much of her career developing novel approaches to treating spasticity in children with cerebral palsy and adults with hemiplegia. Together with her pediatrician/surgeon husband Karel, Bobath worked to address neurological disabilities and develop therapy approaches to improve patients’ lives.
Nobody can argue Berta Bobath’s legacy; together, Karel and Berta developed the Bobath Concept, and they traveled extensively to teach the approach to other practitioners across the globe. While the Bobath Concept has shifted to incorporate new research findings, many fundamentals have remained the same, and neuro-developmental treatment (NDT) principles are still widely used in numerous PT settings.
3. Florence Kendall
Most PT professionals and students are familiar with Muscle Testing and Function, the famous black and gold (or blue and white—or blue and yellow, depending on your age!) text we’ve toted around for years to ensure we properly test muscle strength in isolation. Yes, Florence Kendall is famous for authoring that tome—and establishing the standard for musculoskeletal evaluation and treatment practice, to boot. But, for many of us, that’s where our knowledge of this marvelous woman ends.
In fact, Kendall did so much more than write a famous book; she devoted nearly 70 years of her life to advancing the physical therapy profession. She played a huge role in establishing the legality of PT practice in Maryland, and she even served on President John F. Kennedy’s council on physical fitness, helping to establish exercise standards for school-aged children.
Another member of a wife-husband power couple, Kendall worked with husband Henry to treat polio victims using PT interventions. When Henry retired, Kendall became a traveling educator and mentor, focusing specifically on women and remaining very active late into life.
4. Lynda Woodruff
At the APTA CSM 2020 conference, Aaron Embry, PT, DPT, MSCR, gave an excellent LAMP Catalyst “TED style” talk. In his presentation, he noted, “Lynda Woodruff isn’t a name everyone in the PT profession knows—but it should be.” Woodruff can be credited with adding much-needed diversity and inclusion initiatives to a profession that has been overwhelmingly homogenous for too many years.
Woodruff pushed the envelope to improve the world from a young age. At age 13, she was one of two African American students who worked to integrate their high school in Lynchburg, Virginia—and this led to the first court-ordered desegregation since the 1954 case of Brown vs. The Board of Education. Woodruff later became the first African American to join the PT faculty in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974. She went on to receive a PhD from Georgia State in 1984.
The very picture of paying it forward, Woodruff used her success to direct an award-winning program for minority student recruitment and retention at Georgia State. The Physical Therapy Association of Georgia awarded her the Education Achievement Award in 2004 for her commitment to student growth and the advancement of research, as well as her focus on evidence-based care.
In a career packed with achievements, perhaps the most important contribution Woodruff made before her 2018 death was helping to diversify the PT profession. In addition to establishing APTA’s original Advisory Council on Minority Affairs and the Office of Minority Affairs, she also set up the Minority Scholarship Fund and the Minority Scholarship Award for Academic Excellence.
5. Enid Graham
Enid Graham trained in both Europe and the United States, which provided her with a keen, well-rounded understanding of the benefits of rehabilitation. However, few of her Canadian colleagues shared this viewpoint, underscoring her desire to devote her career and life to the development of physiotherapy in Canada. As WWI drew to a close, Graham’s vision took shape, and she spent her life working to establish standards for ethics and practice in the Canadian physiotherapy profession.
Graham believed physiotherapy would bring many benefits to civilians—not just those in the military. Her work contributed to the formation of The Toronto Society of Trained Masseuses in 1915, and then the Montreal Society in December 1918. Graham helped persuade the Montreal Society that the general Canadian population would benefit from nationwide practice and education standards, and in 1920, the Canadian Association of Massage and Remedial Gymnastics (CAMRG) was formed with Graham as one of its charter members.
Graham didn’t stop there, though, and she even persevered in her professional quest in the face of tragedy. Despite losing her husband when he was just 38 years old, she pushed forward with her vision of university-based physiotherapy education, and she helped establish a physiotherapy school at the University of Toronto.
While physiotherapists in Canada were initially poorly trained, bereft of rank or recognition, and lacking appropriate compensation for their value, Graham worked tirelessly to change this. By the time WWII came about, military leaders finally recognized the value of physiotherapy to returning soldiers. Graham helped create the Canadian Physiotherapy Association’s Military Affairs Committee, which lobbied the military branches to accept policies and standards regarding overseas physiotherapists. Her impact on establishing practices, standards, and a Code of Ethics for PT practice in Canada cannot be overstated.
6. Helen Hislop
Helen Hislop is on the list for her countless contributions to the literary and academic sides of the physical therapy world. After attending Central College in Pella, Iowa, she received her certificate in physical therapy as well as her master's and doctoral degrees from The University of Iowa.
Hislop’s focus on education followed her throughout her career. She served as the editor of Physical Therapy from 1961 to 1968, during which time the content and circulation of the journal more than doubled. She also sat on APTA's Board of Directors from 1976 to 1982. Hislop’s Mary McMillan Lecture in 1975 is the most-cited of the series. In that talk, Hislop delivered a compelling message about the importance of establishing standards for clinical performance, producing outstanding PT scholars, and elevating the role of the physical therapy professional.
Hislop always made a point to push the physical therapy profession toward excellence. Her editorial pieces called for an embracement of technology, and she encouraged PT professionals to become true academicians and professionals, supporting the idea of clinical residencies. Hislop’s academic and publishing contributions have been so prolific and impactful over the years that an award was named after her: The Helen J. Hislop Award for Outstanding Contributions to Professional Literature.
7. Maggie Knott
If you’ve ever used proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) techniques to improve motor function in your patients, you owe a big high-five to Maggie Knott. Together with Dr. Herman Kabat, a neurophysiologist and physician, Knott developed the philosophy, principles, and techniques of the PNF approach during the 1940s.
The early focus of PNF was hands-on treatment designed to improve movement patterns in patients with neurological impairments (especially multiple sclerosis and poliomyelitis), but PNF techniques were also successfully applied to patients with later occurring musculoskeletal impairments. Knott and Kabat later became world-famous for both practicing and teaching the PNF approach.
Knott also worked with Dorothy Voss to publish the first textbook on PNF, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, in 1956. The book has seen multiple updates and revisions over the years, with additional contributors sharing their insight and ultimately carrying the torch with new titles.
Knott helped establish postgraduate physiotherapy training institutes focused on PNF, one of which still exists in Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo, CA. While other influential PTs might tie with Knott on the overall professional influence scale, her impact on the world of PNF is simply unmatched.
8. Jacquelin Perry
Throughout her 94 years, Dr. Jacquelin Perry made major strides in the PT world—namely in gait analysis—before moving into medicine and taking a stance as a staunch ally to the physical therapy profession. She originally trained as a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital from 1940 to 1941. She then practiced as a PT in the US Army and at Georgia Warm Springs Foundation (now Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation) during the polio epidemic, before becoming a physician and board-certified orthopedic surgeon.
Perry was a rockstar in the surgical world, with bragging rights as the first surgeon to attempt a complete spinal fusion. This procedure was intended to restore breathing and mobility to patients with life-threatening spinal curvatures resulting from polio.
Staying true to her roots, Perry took steps to promote the benefits of movement science in medicine, remaining a lifelong friend to the physical therapy field. She published Gait Analysis: Normal and Pathological Function and served as the chief of pathokinesiology and a leader of the post-polio program at Rancho Los Amigos, where she never lost sight of the importance of restoring mobility to patients.
Perry’s focus always remained with observing and quantifying the quality of patients’ movements, and she always stood by the importance of using sound clinical decision-making based on scientific rationale. She published more than 270 scientific papers, performed research on various neurologically-based gait disorders, and studied the gait mechanics of below-the-knee amputees using prosthetic feet. She influenced thousands of lives and impacted patients in a positive way from multiple medical perspectives.
My favorite part about writing this article was realizing that this list could have easily been many, many times longer. There have been so many influential women in the physical therapy field, and there will continue to be many more in the future. Who has been most influential to you in your practice? Female or male, living or deceased, we’d love to hear your famous PT picks in the comments!