Northwestern University was a national pioneer in establishing professional physical therapy education in the U.S. The "Course in Physical Therapy" was established in 1927, one year after a Department of Physical Therapy had been organized to provide physical therapy services for patients in the clinics of the Northwestern University Medical School. The professional physical therapy education program has been consistently accredited since its inception in 1927, with the last accreditation site visit occurring in 2004. While not the first physical therapy program in the U.S., Northwestern's is the longest lasting, and currently the oldest physical therapy school in the country.
Enrollment began with 2 students and remained under 20 students until the early 1950s when it increased to 28 students, remaining at that capacity until 1973 when it expanded again to 40 students. In 1976 class size was increased to 80 students, making "NUPT" one of the largest professional programs for physical therapists in the U.S. The credential awarded to graduates from 1927 until 1954 was a Certificate in Physical Therapy. In 1954 the option of a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy was initiated. In 1979 the Certificate credential was eliminated and only the baccalaureate degree (B.S.) was offered.
In the fall of 1990 NUPT initiated a new professional curriculum at the post baccalaureate level, with graduates earning a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree. When the new curriculum was initiated, class size was reduced to an enrollment of 56 new students each year, to allow the school to accommodate to the longer 2-year curriculum requiring that first and second year classes be using classroom and lab space at the same time, whereas the earlier curriculum allowed for the 2nd year students to do all their clinical work during the shorter 2nd year. In 1997, 58-60 new students were enrolled on an annual basis.
In 1991, there were just 129 accredited physical therapy programs at the professional level with approximately 35% offering a post baccalaureate degree. At that time, there were four accredited physical therapy education programs in Illinois, with Northwestern being the only one to offer a post baccalaureate degree. By 1997, there were 155 accredited physical therapy programs nationally with approximately 69% offering a post baccalaureate degree. Currently, there are over 200 accredited programs of which 99% have either transitioned, or are in the process of transitioning to the doctoral degree in Physical Therapy (DPT). There are currently seven accredited programs in Illinois.
A New Millennium
In 2001, "NUPT" got a new name, the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, as it became a full department within Feinberg School of Medicine, and increased its entry level curriculum to 2.5 years awarding the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (DPT) to graduates. In 2003, the first DPT students graduated. MPT recipients in the three previous years (2000- 2002) were able to transition to the DPT by taking extra classes. In 2007 student enrollment increased to 73 and in 2009 the department's admission goal increased to 80 DPT students per year to respond to the increasing demand for physical therapists nationwide.
Graduate Studies in Physical Therapy
Northwestern established its post-professional graduate program leading to a Master of Science (MS) degree in 1944, with the goal of training the profession's future leaders in teaching and research. There were just 6 graduates between 1944 and 1980. In 1979 we responded to the increased need for scholars and leaders in physical therapy, committing ourselves to expanding the graduate program. A Director of Graduate Studies was hired and a new curriculum was designed and subsequently approved by The Graduate School. There were 74 graduates between 1979 and 1990 and 20 graduates between 1990 and 1996. In 1998, in response to the changing landscape of physical therapy education and research, the department stopped offering the MS degree, ultimately replacing it with a PhD program in neuroscience with an emphasis on Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences (MRS), as then with a dual DPT/PhD degree in Physical Therapy and Engineering.
Administration and Structure within Feinberg School of Medicine
The administrative structure of the department of PTHMS has varied throughout its history. While the educational Program has always been a part of the Medical School (later renamed Feinberg School of Medicine), it was originally identified as a Department of Physical Therapy within the Division of Medicine (1926-1943). Subsequently, it became a separate Department of Physical Therapy in 1943. From 1944 to 1973 the program existed as a unit within the Department of Physical Medicine whose name was subsequently changed to Rehabilitation Medicine. From 1973 to 2001 the physical therapy school, under the title "Programs in Physical Therapy", was an independent academic program within the Medical School reporting to the Dean or a designee. In 2001 the program evolved again, becoming a full department of the Feinberg School of Medicine. The chair of this Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences (PTHMS) participates in meetings and activities involving the Chairs/Directors of departments, programs and centers of Feinberg School of Medicine.
The development, survival and flourishing of this historic and preeminent school of physical therapy could not have occurred without great leaders providing direction and innovation. Gertrude Beard, an early member and leader of the American Physical Therapy Association, built the program and continued to lead NUPT for 25 years, until 1952. She was followed by Elizabeth Wood who led the program for the next 20 years. In 1972 began the Sally Edelsberg era, which lasted 27 years and saw the school grow from 28 to 80 students per class. To accommodate growing admissions, Ms. Edelsberg moved the school to modern quarters occupying the entire 13th floor in the then new building of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now that Shirley Ryan AbilityLab). When NUPT outgrew its RIC home, she led another move to its current location on two floors of 645 N. Michigan Avenue. Ms. Edelsberg established the department's first research lab and put NUPT on a firm financial footing as an entirely self-supporting arm of the medical school. Ms. Edelsberg continues to serve as Associate Professor Emeritus. Starting in 1999, John Brooke, PhD led the program's elevation to full departmental status, gave it a new name (PTHMS), and is responsible for initiating a surge in its research activity that continues expanding to this day, in size, national funding, and global reputation. In 2005 Jules Dewald, PT, PhD took the helm and is the current chair. Under his watch, the school grew again to 80 students per year thus reaching its largest size ever, with approximately 240 students enrolled in the DPT program. Dr. Dewald also initiated both the interdisciplinary MRS PhD program and the first-of-its-kind dual-degree DPT/PhD. Dr. Dewald has also set the department on a course to make it a leader in clinical practice by integrating its current research and education endeavors with a faculty practice serving both Chicago and Evanston campuses.
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences (PTHMS) is currently one of the leading physical therapy education programs the United States, training entry-level physical therapists to become the future leaders of the profession, and scholars to conduct internationally recognized research in movement and rehabilitation science. The program has consistently ranked among the top ten by the US News & World Report.
In 2012 the faculty established the department's new Mission to guide its priorities and goals into the foreseeable future:
- To educate doctors of physical therapy and movement scientists in an academic medical environment that integrates research, education, and clinical care.
- To promote optimal health outcomes for our patients and society through the advancement of rehabilitation science and practice.
- To be a diverse faculty and student body producing global leaders in the profession of physical therapy and the science of human movement.
Steeped in a long tradition of excellence in providing professional and post-professional education, the department’s new mission is unleashing new goals and endeavors such as:
- Capitalizing on the new collaborative agreement with RIC to build a robust faculty practice involved in providing physical therapy services throughout Northwestern Medicine;
- Full integration of physical therapy Research, Education, and Practice within the academic medical center;
- Pursuit of an ambitious research agenda focusing on the development and implementation of technology supported interventions, as well as the quantification of movement disorders and physical therapy outcomes.