Pehr Henrik Ling

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Pehr Henrik Ling
Bust of Pehr Henrik Ling in Göteborg

Pehr Henrik Ling (15 November 1766, Södra Ljunga – 3 May 1839, Stockholm)[1] pioneered the teaching of physical education in Sweden. Ling is often mistakenly credited as the father of Swedish massage, though that title actually belongs to Johann Georg Mezger.[2]

Early life[edit]

Ling was born in Södra Ljunga, Småland in 1766. His parents were minister Lars Peter Ling and Hedvig Maria (Hedda) Molin. On his maternal side, Ling was the great-great grandson of the famous Swedish scientist Olof Rudbeck (1630–1702), discoverer of the human lymphatic system. After graduating from the Växjö gymnasium in 1792, he studied theology at Lund University from 1793, and completed his degree at Uppsala University in 1799.[1]


Following his studies at university, Ling lived abroad for seven years. Ling studied at the University of Copenhagen, where he was taught modern languages. He then traveled to Germany, France, and England. Financial difficulties and rheumatism caused him to return to Sweden.


Back in Sweden, Ling began a routine of daily exercise, including fencing, and in 1805 was appointed as a master of fencing at Lund University (1805). Having discovered that his daily exercises had restored his health, Ling decided to apply this experience for the benefit of others. He saw the potential for adapting these techniques to promote better health in many situations and thus attended classes on anatomy and physiology, and went through the entire curriculum for the training of a doctor. He then elaborated a system of gymnastics, exercises, and maneuvers divided into four branches: (1) pedagogical, (2) medical, (3) military, and (4) aesthetic, which carried out his theories and demonstrated the scientific rigor to be integrated or approved by established medical practitioners.

After several attempts to interest the Swedish government, Ling at last obtained government cooperation in 1813,[3] when the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute for the training of gymnastic instructors was opened in Stockholm, with Ling appointed as principal. The orthodox medical practitioners were opposed to the claims made by Ling and his disciples. However, by 1831, Ling was elected a member of the Swedish General Medical Association (Svenska läkaresällskapet), which demonstrated that his methods were regarded as worthy of professional recognition. He was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1835 and became a titular professor the same year.


When Ling died in 1839, he had charged three of his pupils with carrying on his legacy. These pupils were Lars Gabriel Branting (1799–1881), who succeeded Ling as principal of the Institute; August Georgii, who became sub-director of the Institute; and his own son, Hjalmar Ling (1820–1886). These three, along with Major Thure Brandt, who from c. 1861 specialized in the treatment of women (gynecological gymnastics), are regarded as the pioneers of Swedish medical gymnastics.

Although Ling was usually credited as the father of Swedish massage, it was not a part of Ling’s Gymnastic Movements nor the curriculum of the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute founded by Ling in 1813.[2] The "Swedish massage" techniques effleurage (long, gliding strokes), petrissage (lifting and kneading the muscles), friction (firm, deep, circular rubbing movements), tapotement (brisk tapping or percussive movements), and vibration (rapidly shaking or vibrating specific muscles) are mainly due to Johann Georg Mezger (1838–1909).[2]

Some sources mention that Ling learned massage from a Chinese friend, Ming, but this was an invention of Ling’s rivals, in an effort to discredit his work. Although Ling was probably aware of Chinese massage, he instead developed a system of integrated manual therapy, combining physical training and gymnastic procedures with knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and pathology.[4] He was the first to publish and popularize such a system with modern scientific knowledge.

Ling's system of medical gymnastics also influenced later institutions and systems. The Gymnastic Orthopedic Institute was founded in Stockholm in 1822 by Nils Åkerman, which from 1827 received a government grant. Around 1857, Gustaf Zander developed a medico-mechanical system of gymnastics, known by his name, and started his Zander Institute at Stockholm in 1865. At the Stockholm Gymnastic Central Institute, qualified medical faculties have supervised the medical department since 1864.

Broadly speaking, there have been two streams of development in the Swedish gymnastics founded on Ling's beginnings, either in a conservative direction, making certain forms of gymnastic exercises subsidiary to the prescriptions of orthodox medical science, or else in an extremely progressive direction, making these exercises a substitute for any other treatment, and claiming them as cures for diseases. A representative of the latter, more extreme section was Henrik Kellgren (1837–1916), who had a special school and following.

Other accounts of Dr Ling's practice and philosophies were published: a Handbook of Medical Gymnastics (English edition, 1899) by Anders Wide of Stockholm represents the more conservative practice. Henrik Kellgren's system is partially based on Ling's, and is described in The Elements of Kellgren's Manual Treatment (1903) by Edgar F. Cyriax, who, before earning his MD at Edinburgh, had served at the Stockholm Institute as a gymnastic director. See also the encyclopedic work Sweden: its people and its industry: historical and statistical handbook (1904), p. 348, edited by Gustav Sandburg for the Swedish government.


  1. ^ a b Georgii, Augustus (1854). A Biographical Sketch of the Swedish Poet and Gymnasiarch, Peter Henry Ling. Oxford University: H. Bailliere, London. pp. 1–2,39. 
  2. ^ a b c Calvert, Robert Noah. "Swedish Massage". Massage Magazine. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Tidskr, Sven Med. "Per Henrik Ling and his impact on gymnastics". US National Institute of Medicine. Retrieved 13 October 2014. 
  4. ^ Ottosson, A (2010). "The first historical movements of kinesiology: scientification in the borderline between physical culture and medicine around 1850.". Int J Hist Sport. 27 (11): 1892–1919. doi:10.1080/09523367.2010.491618. PMID 20653114. 

External links[edit]

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Anders Fredrik Skjöldebrand
Swedish Academy,
Seat No 18

Succeeded by
Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom