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Reflexology—or something similar to it—was practiced thousands of years ago. More than 4,000 years ago, the Chinese learned that foot massage was a useful adjunct to the practice of acupuncture. Many modern practitioners of reflexology believe that reflexology utilizes the principles on which acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are based. A 4,000-year-old fresco that appears in the tomb of Ankhmahor, physician to a pharaoh, in the Egyptian city of Saqqara depicts the practice of foot massage. In North America, the Cherokee people have emphasized the importance of the feet in health, partly because it is through the feet that human beings connect with the earth. Zone theory, which provides a theoretical basis for reflexology, existed in Europe as early as the 1500s.

Although reflexology is an ancient practice, its modern form originated in the early 20th century. William Fitzgerald, a Ct.-based physician who was an ear, nose, and throat specialist, revived the practice of reflexology in the West in 1913, when he found that applying pressure to a patient's hands or feet just before surgery decreased the level of pain experienced by the patient. In 1917, Fitzgerald wrote Zone Therapy, or Relieving Pain at Home, which described his work. Fitzgerald believed that "bioelectrical energy" flows from points in the feet or hands to specific points elsewhere in the body, and he thought that applying tourniquets and various instruments to the feet or hands enhanced the flow of energy. He set out to map the flow of that energy, and in the process he set up correspondences between areas on the feet or hands and areas throughout the body.

The next important figure in modern reflexology was Eunice Ingham, a physiotherapist who had worked with Joseph Shelby Riley, a follower of William Fitzgerald. Riley had decided against using instruments to manipulate the feet and hands, opting to use his hands instead. Ingham practiced and taught extensively, mapped the correspondences between the reflexes and the parts of the body, and wrote books chronicling her work with her patients, which helped to promote the field of reflexology. She went on to found the organization now known as the International Institute of Reflexology (IIR), which continues to promote the Original Ingham Method of Reflexology. Ultimately, Ingham became known as the mother of modern reflexology. Her students have played major roles in spreading reflexology throughout the world.