An almost forgotten Canadian doctor was the pioneer of reflexology in North America.
Dr. Mahlon Locke was one of the most famed medics in North America during the 1930′s. The roads to the little town of Williamsburg, Ontario were jammed with vehicles making their was to his rustic dispensary, and his techniques of foot manipulation were widely sought and held in great esteem by the lay public and press.
Yet today Dr. Mahlon Locke is virtually unknown, though there is an historic plaque commemorating his career in the town of Williamsburg.
While one would think Locke would be heralded and acclaimed in the annals of reflexology, the history section of the website of The Ontario College of Reflexology makes not a single mention of Dr. Locke.
Locke was born on St. Valentine’s Day, 1880, in Dixon’s Corners, Ontario, not far from Williamsburg, the town where he would eventually practice.
He received a conventional medical degree from Queen’s University in 1905 and went on to work with the Algoma Steel Corporation, then did post-graduate training in Edinburgh, Scotland, returning as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
He purchased a practice in Williamsburg in 1908 and for the next 20 years carried on a competent and conventional country practice. Somewhere along the line he picked up a knowledge of foot manipulation, now popularly know as reflexology. He treated his first patient by this technique in 1909 when Peter Beckstead, the village blacksmith came to him complaining of fallen arches. Locke manipulated Beckstead’s feet, then had the village shoemaker construct what he called a “cookie” but which in fact was an orthotic appliance fabricated to support Beckstead’s arches.
Initially “toe-twisting” occupied only a small portion of Locke’s practice, which included duties as the district coroner and running a satellite office at Prescott, Ontario. The especial efficacy of his technique for arthritis eventually attracted attention of the lay press. By 1925 Locke’s practice began to be dominated by his foot manipulation techniques.
Where did Locke learn and develop his abilities in this form of treatment? Reflexology is hardly a new technique with depictions appearing in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, and it was well known in India and the Far East where it was felt to be useful in channeling “qi” or life energy. A form of reflexology was also known and practiced by North American Native groups, especially the Cherokee. Certain lecturers in Edinburgh taught that foot conditions such as fallen arches could be treated with manual manipulation. Perhaps Dr. Locke refined and broadened his techniques from interactions with some of the local Native peoples.
Locke’s fame became assured when he treated popular then renowned novelist Rex Ellington Beach, and subsequently was written up in the August, 1932 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.
He soon became overwhelmed with patients demanding his services and would often seat himself in an swivel office chair with lines of patients surrounding him and would rotate from one person to another, sometimes treating 1,000 patients or more daily. His motivation did not seem to be mercenary, however, as he would never charge more than one dollar for his treatments, and still saw conventional patients for 25 cents or free if they couldn’t afford to pay. In fact when several hotels were built in Williamsburg to house his burgeoning clientele, Locke forbade them to charge more than one dollar a night, threatening to build his own hostelry.
Locke still would prescribe his “cookies” or orthotics but eventually came up with his own line of Lockewedge Shores which were stocked by Macy’s in New York and Simpson’s in Toronto.
Later in life, Dr. Locke developed diabetes, and eventually his grueling pace caught up with him. He died in 1942 of pneumonia, just shy of his 62nd birthday.
Locke’s son and brother-in-law tried to keep the clinic open, claiming they had been taught the “toe-twisting” techniques but they were unsuccessful. His secret died with him.
During his career Mahlon Locke was met by indifference within the Canadian medical community and hostility from his American colleagues. Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association was a vociferous critic of Locke’s techniques of treating arthritis. Yet mainstream medicine’s accepted germ theory of arthritis at that time now seems laughable and its mutilating surgical therapies horrifying.
Even modern reflexology credits its origins to the zone therapy of Dr. William Fitzgerald in Connecticut despite the fact that he didn’t commence developing this until 1913, fully four years after Locke first treated local blacksmith Peter Beckstead.
Truthfully, it can be said that the true origins of reflexology and pedorthics in North America were initiated by Dr. Mahlon Locke, another forgotten and neglected Canadian pioneer.
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