Anna Signe Sofia Brunnstrom was born at Karlberg Castle (the Swedish Military Academy) in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 1, 1898. She was the second daughter of Captain Edvin Brunnstrom and his wife Hedwig. She died in Darien Convalescent Center in Darien, Connecticut, on February 21, 1988. During the 90 years of her life, she served in many capacities. She was a master clinician, scholar, translator, researcher, educator, author, lecturer, mentor, traveller, and humanitarian. Her reputation as a physical therapist was known worldwide.
At age 16, she entered Uppsala College, where she studied sciences, history, geography, and gymnastics. In 1917, she passed the required examination to enter the Royal Institute for Gymnastics in Stockholm. The Institute was founded by fencing master Per Henrik Ling in 1813. Ling developed a system of medical gymnastics, called “Swedish exercises” that spread across Europe and later into the United States. His exercises were unusual at the time because hands-on resistance or assistance was applied by the therapist. Ling's techniques became the foundation for many of the treatment approaches that Miss Brunnstrom would use in her future work. At the Institute, she excelled in calisthenics and graduated on May 30, 1919, with the title of “Gymnastikdirektor.”
In 1920, Miss Brunnstrom went to Berne, Switzerland, to work with a physical therapist. A year later, she established her own “Sjugymnastik Institute” in Lucerne. There she gained a reputation as a therapist treating disabled children with scoliosis and poliomyelitis. She also established an evening program for working women in need of remedial exercise.
She left Switzerland in 1927 and travelled to New York City, where she accepted a position in exercise therapy at the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled (later to be renamed the Hospital for Special Surgery). Fourteen Scandinavians worked in the physiotherapy department, and Miss Brunnstrom became the person to whom they all looked for advice as a generous and patient friend. To make ends meet during the depression years, Miss Brunnstrom became a physical training instructor in the gymnasium of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. There she applied her ideas about physical education for working women and started special remedial exercise classes. She worked for Metropolitan on and off for 20 years and also offered “Swedish massage” to private patients, received referrals from physicians, and taught exercise classes at New York University.
In 1931, Miss Brunnstrom was admitted to Barnard College, where she took nine credits in chemistry and three credits in English. Recognizing that she could successfully handle American university work, she then enrolled at New York University, where as a part-time student she earned a Master's degree in physical education and a Master of Arts degree in education.
On November 26, 1934, at age 36, Anna Signe Sofia Brunnstrom became a citizen of the United States of America and officially had her name changed to Signe Brunnstrom.
Only 6 years after she came to New York, her first article in English, “Faulty Weight Bearing with Special Reference to Position of the Thigh and Foot” (Physiother. Rev. 15 , 1935), was published. This article was the forerunner of 22 clinical articles; several book chapters; three voluminous research reports; numerous abstracts and book reviews (including many translations of classic European work); several films; and three major textbooks on prosthetic training, kinesiology, and hemiplegia movement therapy. She also read and translated the works of major European and American scientists and brought them to the kinesiology literature. These scientists included Blix, Borelli, Bethe and Franke, Braune and Fisher, Elfman, Duchenne, Fick, Inman, Marey, Magus, and the Weber brothers.
Signe Brunnstrom remains one of the most productive contributors to the body of physical therapy knowledge. Through her students and writings, she has left a great legacy to practicing physical and occupational therapists.
In 1938, Miss Brunnstrom was appointed an instructor of therapeutic exercise at New York University. She taught there until 1942 and later in 1948, when she joined the faculty of the Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine as a research associate working on a suction socket study sponsored by the Veterans Administration and NYU.
In the spring of 1941, with the United States still not drawn into World War II, Miss Brunnstrom applied through the American Red Cross to serve as a civilian physical therapist in a military hospital. She was assigned to the physical therapy department at Sheppard Field, Texas, with the Army Air Corps. She left Texas 2 years later, hoping to enlist in the US Army Medical Specialist Corps, but was refused because of her age (she was 45). She then enlisted in the US Navy, and in 1943 reported to the Navy Hospital at Mare Island, California, as the officer in charge of physical therapy. It was there, while working with a young naval medical officer, Dr. Henry Kessler, that she made major contributions to the rehabilitation of amputees. After the war, Dr. Kessler founded the well-known Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey. Miss Brunnstrom was discharged from the Navy in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant.
After the war, Miss Brunnstrom participated in prosthetic research at the University of California and New York University. In addition, she was Director of Professional Education at the Kessler Institute. She was also a clinical consultant at the Burke Foundation in White Plains, New York, the New York State
Rehabilitation Hospital at West Haverstraw, and the Veterans Administration; she was also a visiting instructor at Stanford University in California. In 1951, she was awarded a Fulbright Lectureship to Greece, where she worked on developing a school of physical therapy and trained aides to carry out amputee exercise programs. Throughout this time, Miss Brunnstrom was in great demand to conduct continuing education courses, seminars, and workshops.
From 1955 through 1971, one of Miss Brunnstrom's many professional activities was teaching kinesiology to physical and occupational therapy students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York. A teaching grant from the US Office of Vocational Rehabilitation enabled her to prepare a laboratory manual for the students. The manual was developed into the textbook Clinical Kinesiology, which was published in 1962. This was the first American kinesiology text to be written for physical and occupational therapy students. Before this time, most kinesiology textbooks were oriented to physical education and athletic activities.
Signe Brunnstrom received numerous honors and awards, including the US Navy Medal of Merit in 1945, the Marian Williams Research Award presented by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 1965, the University Citation of the State University of New York at Buffalo (equivalent to an honorary doctorate) in 1973, and an appointment to honorary membership in the Union of Swedish Physical Therapists in 1974. In 1987, the Board of Directors of APTA renamed the Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching in her honor. The award is now known as the Signe Brunnstrom Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching.
—Jay Schleichkorn, PhD, PT