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Physical therapy is an evidence-based profession whose focus is on the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal human physical function.1 The World Health Organization's International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) has been embraced by the global physical therapy community as a key construct in describing the relationship between components of human function and health-related conditions.2,3 Services provided by physical therapists may address all aspects of the ICF model including impairments in body structures and body functions, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Physical therapists generally work with individuals with musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and integumentary dysfunction. In addition to direct patient care, physical therapists play a role in education, research, administration, and consultation as well as in preventive care and promoting optimal health and wellness.


The physical therapy profession in the United States has its roots as far back as the early part of the twentieth century. The polio epidemic in 1916 and World War I greatly facilitated the profession's growth as the need for exercise specialists to treat those with muscle weakness and war-related injuries was evident. The Division of Special Hospitals and Physical Reconstruction was established in 1917 by the US Surgeon General to meet the human resource needs.4,5 Reconstruction aides were trained in this system to treat those injured in war. Concurrently, the polio epidemic created the need for health care teams including physical therapists to examine and treat children with polio. These historical events established the foundation for the current day physical therapist (PT) professional.

The onset of World War II, as well as further outbreaks of polio, further advanced the demand for the rehabilitation professional and facilitated the development of professional practice throughout the 1950s and 1960s.6 The evolution of the profession in the latter half of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century cannot be separated from the changes in the educational and licensing requirements, as well as the growth of the professional association, all of which facilitated the advance of both practice and research.


The origin of physical therapist education began during World War I with 15 “reconstruction aid” training programs developed by the US Army.5 Around the same time, special training for those involved in the care of children with poliomyelitis or “infantile paralysis” was initiated in Boston by an Orthopedic Surgeon, Robert Lovett. Many women who trained within the Army system and those trained to treat children with poliomyelitis were the early leaders of the profession.

Educational requirements to practice as a physical therapist were elevated over the twentieth century. Minimum degree requirements evolved from certificate level programs in the early twentieth century, where training was primarily based in the hospital setting, to baccalaureate degree programs in the 1960s, housed primarily ...

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