This article first appeared in the 2007 International Association of Structural Integrators (IASI) Yearbook.

Ida Rolf and the Two Paradigms

© Sam Johnson 2006

The history of Ida Rolf’s early work in the field of biological chemistry, long before her creation of structural integration, has always been a very short story. A PhD from Columbia, a decade of work at the Rockefeller Institute, a few papers published, and then she left the world of science, later taking a long, meandering path to creating the work we all share.


Ida Rolf formatted

I’ve recently read some new information about the world she left, and about the context in which she entered her first profession, that makes the story much more full and rich. It also gives an appreciation of the magnitude of the leap she took in developing her namesake work, and offers us some insights on the potential and the pitfalls of our field.

Dr Rolf officially entered the world of scientific medicine in 1917, when she was hired to work in the Chemistry Laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. However, the story starts earlier than that.

To understand the culture into which she was walking, the important date is September 12, 1876. On that day, Johns Hopkins University was launched in Baltimore, Maryland. Thanks in large part to it first director, William Welch, the single most influential figure in American medical history, Hopkins would change the face of American science and medicine and usher in a paradigm shift that dominates the health sciences in the Western world to this day. For the first decade of Ida Rolf’s professional life, she was a product of that paradigm shift.

 Hippocrates and Wholism, Part One

The founding of Hopkins was important in part because of the chaos that existed in American medicine for most of the 19th century.  It was chaos created by a vacuum. The medical practices that had existed largely unchanged since the days of Hippocrates, had begun to fall out of favor, as the emergence of the scientific method began to shed doubt on their effectiveness. But for all that science was discovering, no treatments had emerged to replace the old therapies.

The great irony (for our field and for many other so-called “new paradigm” approaches to health), is that the paradigm that existed prior to the scientific medicine revolution looked a lot like what we describe as “new”. This paradigm, which dominated Western and Middle Eastern medical thought for over two millenia, was founded largely on the writings of Hippocrates and his colleagues and was based firmly on the principle of wholism.

Hippocrates saw health as a reflection of balance in the body, and illness consequently was a result of imbalance. Internal imbalance, caused by living habits, environmental factors, hygiene, etc., led to disease. From that idea followed the belief that if a physician could intervene in such a way that balance was restored in the body, illness could be healed. Hippocrates, in the fifth century B.C., not Hahnemann or Sutherland or Still or Alexander or Rolf, can be credited with first popularizing that notion in western thought.

(The approach to health promoted by the Hippocratic writers was similar in spirit to the other great wholistic traditions that existed at the time – traditional Chinese medicine and Vedic medicine in India. Both had existed for thousands of years before Hippocrates, and both stressed balance, although their systems of healing diverged greatly.)

Hippocrates stressed the importance of trusting in a sick person’s innate power to recover and heal. He was the first Western physician to articulate what would become known as “Vis medicatrix naturae” – the healing power of nature. He also hinted at an understanding of the power of the immune system, speculating that diet, rest, cleanliness and hygiene were factors in these individual differences in resistance to disease.

However, there were two problems. First, many of the treatments that were developed were harsh and sometimes deadly. Poisonous purgatives, bloodletting, and cauterization (burning the skin), often resulted in the death of the patient. Second, there was not any testing done to see if treatments actually worked. This problem of rigor – of submitting one’s ideas and treatments to rigorous testing – would continue to haunt the wholistic world centuries later.

Complicating things further was that the physicians of the era were forced to speculate about what went on inside the body. Dissection was not done on humans and thus there was very little actual anatomical knowledge of the human body. The Greeks of the Hippocratic era frowned on dissection, and then later through the Middle Ages, the Church forbade the dissection of bodies. It was not until Vesalius in the 16th century performed dissections and drew pictures of what he found, that the inner workings of the human body were studied and mapped for the first time. (He barely escaped death for his heresy.)