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1913–1920: New scientific legitimacy

The University of Otago School of Massage was established in 1913.

It emerged out of a climate in which health professionals such as masseurs sought to gain scientific legitimacy and official recognition alongside the more established medical profession.

By way of ensuring graduates received a recognised qualification the task of administering the School of Massage was taken over by the Otago Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in 1915, in an arrangement which was to last for the next 60 years.

The events of World War I and the outbreak of poliomyelitis in New Zealand resulted in a large number of physically disabled individuals in the community requiring rehabilitation, which lead to an increased recognition of the need for physical rehabilitation.

1921–1945: Development and expansion

In 1921 the Masseurs Registration Act (1920) took effect, meaning the Massage Board assumed responsibility for training, state examinations, and the registration of practitioners.

By the 1930s the length of the course was increased to two years, as the curriculum then included exercise therapy as well as therapeutic massage.

Electrotherapy techniques were added into the syllabus, and increasingly members of the profession became known as physiotherapists rather than masseurs.

Subsidiary schools were soon approved, and from 1942 final year students worked within physiotherapy departments in hospitals in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.

1946–1960: Changing techniques

Prime Minister Peter Fraser opened the New Zealand School of Physiotherapy—located on the corner of Hanover and Cumberland Streets—on 1 May 1946.

The Physiotherapy Act came into effect soon after, in 1949, and the scope of physiotherapy practice widened as demands for treatment of asthma, thoracic surgical and spinal conditions grew.

New techniques and approaches evolved to apply corrective manipulation for the spine, and with advances in neurophysiology, there was a shift away from Swedish Remedial exercises to other forms of therapeutic exercise.

The electrotherapy curriculum also underwent a revival with the introduction of therapeutic ultrasound in 1952. By 1956 the course comprised three years of full-time study. At this time the first Colombo Plan students arrived in Dunedin from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaysia to undertake physiotherapy training.

1961–1995: Hospital Board to Polytechnic to University

A teachers' training programme was established in Dunedin in 1961. This assisted with the ongoing teaching shortage experienced at the School, driven by increasing student numbers. The future for graduating physiotherapists looked bright with growing demand from hospitals and the community.

After 60 years of administration by the Otago Hospital Board, responsibility for physiotherapy education in Dunedin transferred to the Otago Polytechnic in 1976 with the establishment of the Diploma of Physiotherapy programme. A physiotherapy clinic was set up as part of the Student Health services offered to the students at the University of Otago as well as providing clinical placements for students.

The School of Physiotherapy moved onto the new Otago Polytechnic campus in Forth Street in 1989.

Equipped with a then state-of the art swimming pool, the School developed a range of hydrotherapy classes for community groups and staff began to look for new avenues for postgraduate opportunities in physiotherapy. An increasing emphasis was being placed on research.

A four-year conjoint degree course between the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic was launched in 1991, with the first Bachelor of Physiotherapy graduates joining the University graduation ceremony in December 1993.

For the first time in the history of the School, a Postgraduate Diploma in Manipulative Therapy was established by the University of Otago in 1993.

Other post graduate qualifications were soon to follow.

1996–present: Forward into a new century

From 1996 the University of Otago had full responsibility for physiotherapy education once again. The School moved to a new, purpose-built facility in Great King Street, in June 1997.

The building was officially opened by Judith Medlicott, University Chancellor, on the 5 December 1997.

The first doctoral student, Wichai Eungpinichpong, graduated in 1998. Government funding was extended to include the fourth year of physiotherapy education.

In 2013 the School of Physiotherapy celebrated 100 years of Physiotherapy at Otago with a major event for alumni and conference focussed on taking physiotherapy forward into the new century.

Read more about our history and heritage

Much of the above information was sourced from In Our Hands: 100 years of Physiotherapy at Otago 1913–2013 by Louise Shaw. Publisher: School of Physiotherapy, Dunedin, 2013.
ISBN: 9780473238506. Copies are available from the School.

Many individual graduates and staff from the School have made significant national and international contributions to the development of physiotherapy and a diverse range of areas in health.

Some of their stories are told online here:

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