Josephine Lewis


In 2014 Nelson Youth Council conducted a series of interviews for Heritage Week 2015. They spoke with people involved in areas of health and medicine. This is one of the stories which was displayed in Elma Turner Library.

Josephine Lewis  Physiotherapist

Josephine (Jo) Lewis grew up on a farm in Wanganui. Her career choice was influenced by a strong desire to travel the world. There weren't a lot of openings for young women in those days other than nursing, teaching or working in a bank. Jo first heard about physiotherapy when a girl from her school had treatment for a sore knee.

She studied Physiotherapy at Otago University, a huge achievement as she was the first of all of her cousins to attend a tertiary institution. In those days, it was not common for girls to go to University.

Student physiotherapists had to gain extensive knowledge of the functions of individual muscles and the way the human body was constructed. Jo tells stories of having to take home a real skeleton and keep it in her room for months! Jo graduated from university in 1955. At that time there was a terrible poliomyelitis epidemic. Jo started working as soon as she had finished studying, and moved up to Palmerston North. From there she travelled overseas to North America.

PhysiotherapyThe wonders of physiotherapy. From the Nelson PhotoNews, October 13 1962, p. 34
Click image to enlarge

Her next job was working for the Canadian Arthritis and Rheumatism Society in Vancouver, British Columbia. Each physiotherapist was assigned a certain area to work in, generally rural, and they took care of the incidents in this location. Jo worked in the Mountains “in the absolute wop wops” travelling over 1000 miles per month, on road, off-road, up and down lumber tracks the lot! Her patients tended to be Pacific North-West Native Indians and also refugees from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. These were the people who got into the lumber industries and opened up mining areas. The treatments for these people were for physical accidents and there were a lot of general arthritic patients.”

As a young woman she had to be chaperoned when travelling into these areas.  Jo says “This was interesting in itself, but I loved the experience and adventure of this time in this job”.

Next she went to Houston, Texas, where she worked at a centre for treatment of brain damaged children. This involved using and developing different methods to try and prevent contractions of the muscles. They used a process called “patterning” to improve coordination and teach muscles new ways of doing an activity. They recorded their treatments and results and forwarded them onto scientists and doctors in California who were in the very early stages of research into the brain. There was a lot of interest in this, as large numbers of soldiers had come back from World War II with these types of injuries.

Jo couldn’t work in America very long, as there were limited work permits. Canada was an easier place to work so Jo and her new husband went to Montreal for another three years. Jo worked in Montreal Children’s Hospital, a large specialist hospital for all conditions. Again Jo’s speciality here was working with brain-damaged children. Returning to New Zealand, Jo worked as a volunteer and helped local physiotherapists in Christchurch. This concluded her 12 years working in the profession.

Whilst Jo had great variety in patients and learnt a huge range of techniques to help each of her clients she says that “The changes in physiotherapy have been enormous” and notes that progress in types of equipment now used has been very noticeable. Ongoing research has continued to influence how physiotherapists treat their patients. Where once you would just do exercise patterns to strengthen, now equipment such as bicycles and weights may be used.  Hydrotherapy, getting people in and out of the water, has become more common in treatment.

Jo recalls how efficient she and her colleagues were in using crepe elastic bandages for sports injuries and the like. “We were expert at bandaging knees and elbows and shoulders, making sure that you had the right pull on the joint and learning to be careful not to miss a line”. She states that the tape that was available at the time “Elastoplast “would rip your skin!” Today she is amazed at how “they just “wop” the tape on around legs.” Knee braces and ankle braces are unfamiliar to her, as in the past it was rest, bandages, heat lamps and then ice when it came in as injury treatment.

Physiotherapy galvanismTreatment by interrupted galvanism. From the Nelson PhotoNews October 13, 1962, p.34
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Modern gymnasiums have a huge range of variety and more specific exercises that can be used for treatment compared to 50 or 60 years ago in Jo’s time. “We did have medicine balls and ribs on the wall which you could do a lot with, but today you would use other equipment such as running machines”.

Electrotherapeutic therapy has changed. Ultrasound had just started in the late 1950’s. Short wave diathermy, galvanic/ faradic treatment (which was used in her time) is now not used at all. Acupuncture has been introduced as a form of physiotherapy.

However, much of the hands-on treatments such as massage, manipulative physio have hardly changed at all.” Today physios do a lot more manipulation of the spine which she did not do.

“In terms of treating brain damaged patients, the methods of treatment have been enhanced rather than changed and built on what we developed, using knowledge of how the brain works and the patterns in the neuro-muscular pathways.”

Jo spoke of how the profession is now broken into very specific specialties related to parts of the body. Jo would have treated hand injury using the whole body or the whole arm rather than the specifics. “You didn’t just do a finger, it was more general”.

 Josephine Lewis interviewed by Emily-Rose James, December 2014; edited Debbie Daniell-Smith (updated July 2020)

Sources used in this story

  • Interview with Josephine Lewis, December 2014

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  • Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    Posted by charles terry, 24/05/2015 12:00am (9 years ago)

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