The Life of Per Henrik Ling
The Life of Per Henrik Ling

The Life of Per Henrik Ling

By Judi Calvert, LMP
September 1, 2010

The Life of Per Henrik Ling

By Judi Calvert, LMP
September 1, 2010

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". Ling's 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 couldn't 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 Ling's 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. Grafstrom's 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.

Ling's 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, it's 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 Ling's 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 Ling's 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 "Ling's medical gymnastic system was the seed of Swedish massage brought to this country in the early nineteenth century."

Though Benjamin's scholarship seems to disprove the idea that Ling was the sole founder of Swedish massage, it's 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 life's 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 wouldn't 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.