University of Nebraska Medical Center


History of UNMC's Physical Therapy Program

In 1968 the Nebraska Chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association established an ad hoc committee (George Blanton, PT, Harry Dinnel, Jr., PT, and Frances Tomcykowski, PT) to examine the practice of physical therapy in the state. The resultant report recommended the establishment of a school of physical therapy in Nebraska at the earliest possible date.

Three pivotal developments followed in 1969 allowing this vision to be realized; the Nebraska Unicameral allocated start-up funds for the physical therapy program, the University of Nebraska Medical Center established an administrative unit in the College of Medicine -- the School of Allied Health Professions -- to include the Program in Physical Therapy, and Ms. Mary Ellen Sacksteder, MS, PT, was hired as the founding director.
Ms. Sacksteder worked with an ad hoc committee of Omaha and Lincoln physical therapists and a campus Advisory Committee to develop a curriculum which provided the junior and senior years of study for a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Therapy. By April 1970 the new UNMC PT curriculum had been approved and the first class of 12 students began in June of 1970. The program was fully accredited with the first graduating class in June 1972 and the program has been continuously accredited since that time. The school was originally located in one classroom in South Hall (now Bennett Hall) until 1983 when the program moved to Conkling Hall (current site of the Lied Transplant Center).

Physical Therapy Program Directors:

  • Mary Ellen Sacksteder – Founding Director 1969 - 1979
  • Virginia Nieland – Interim Director & Director 1979 - 1982
  • Susan Martin Cigelman - Interim Director 1982 - 1983
  • James Martin - Director 1983 - 1989
  • Patricia Hageman - Interim Director 1989 - 1990; Director 1990 – 2008
  • Gilbert Willett - Interim Director 2008 - 2010
  • Jack Turman, Jr - Director 2010 - 2013
  • Joe Norman - Director Sept 2013 - 2018
  • Betsy Becker - Director Jan 2019 - present

As the profession of physical therapy evolved, so too did the entry-level educational requirements. On July 8, 1986 the program faculty submitted a proposal to the UNMC administration to increase the length of the professional education program from two to three years and award a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree. The final MPT proposal was approved by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in September of 1988, and the first class of 28 students began the new MPT program in the fall of 1989. The class of 1990 was the final class to be awarded the Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy degree and class of 1992 was the first to be awarded the Master of Science in Physical Therapy (there was no graduating class in the 1991 transition year). Along with the new curriculum, the MPT program allowed for expanding the size of classes over the first 3 years of its implementation to 40 members per class.

Again in the mid 1990's a national dialogue began regarding a transition to the Doctor of Physical Therapy as the entry-level professional degree. In December 1999 the faculty submitted a proposal to award the entry-level DPT degree. The proposal received immediate support from the UNMC administration, was approved by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in November 2000 and received final approval from the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education in the State of Nebraska in March 2001. The University of Nebraska became one of the first public institutions in the nation to offer the DPT as the entry-level degree for physical therapists when it implemented the new curriculum in the fall of 2001. The class of 2004 was the first to receive the entry-level DPT degree.

The mid-90s also brought about a significant change in location for the program, with a move to the Student Life Center, including the development of the first dedicated research space in the program’s history, the Clinical Movement Science Laboratory. In September of 2008, the PT program joined the other programs in the School of Allied Health Professions in the newly renovated Bennett Hall and increased the class size to 50 students. In 2015, the school became an independent college.

Since 2016, UNMC has worked collaboratively with several Chinese universities to support the global advancement of the profession of physical therapy. Read our interactive 10-year report.

In 2016, as part of a state-wide initiative for improving healthcare in rural areas, the Health Sciences Education building opened on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. The DPT program expanded to include sixteen students at that location. The first cohort graduated in 2019.