Physical Therapy Through the Years

Curated by Dr. Marnie Wortman, PT, DPT October is National Physical Therapy Month! To kick things off, we thought it would be fun to take a look at how much physical therapy has changed and progressed over the years. 

Early 1900’s:

WWI and Polio helped to create the occupation of physical therapy.

Polio brought the need for rehabilitation and muscle retraining, while WWI required the importance of having able-bodied soldiers.

Physical therapy began with physical fitness programs, which increased workforce efficiency and “economic usefulness”, and also provided treatment of children with disabilities.


US Army established the Division of Special Hospitals and Physical Reconstruction where wounded soldiers were treated.

They developed a 3-month emergency education program, which concentrated in education and exercise.  At completion, you were a “reconstruction aide."


Thirteen schools had short, intensive, certificate programs in physical therapy, consisting of 6 months of education.


By this time, what is now known as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) was formed and developed the minimal standards for the profession. 

Minimum standards included 9 months of education, with the prerequisite being a graduate from a recognized school of physical education or nursing.


American Medical Association (AMA) accredited physical therapy schools consisting of 12-24 month programs, requiring the prerequisite of 60 college credits or graduating from a 2-year school of nursing or physical education.


Due to overwhelming need, physical therapists began practicing in a wide variety of settings including outpatient centers, home care, convalescent homes, orthopedic hospitals, schools for children with disabilities and higher education settings.


37 physical therapy programs were offering a PT degree, mostly from colleges and universities vs hospitals.


Bachelors of Science in Nursing became the educational qualification


It was decided that a post baccalaureate degree was to be required to enter physical therapy by 1990 (It actually took until 1999!)

Minimum educational requirements at this time included 12 months-4 years of educations after prerequisite course work was completed.


All PT degrees must be post baccalaureate.


All programs not post baccalaureate were no longer accredited.

February 2003:

New Jersey became the 36th state to adopt direct access which allows patients to seek treatment from a physical therapist without a prescription or referral from a physician.

July 2014:

Physical therapy established direct access nationwide.

January 2016:

Doctorate of Physical Therapy became required degree for all entry level physical therapy programs.