History of Osteopathy

Learning the origin story of osteopathy helps us to understand that the roots of this hands-on medicine practice are compassion in action. 

To practice osteopathy one needs to be altruistic, insatiably curious, and able to move forward fearlessly in the face of perceived obstacles and devastating heartache.

The banner of Osteopathy was unfurled by the American physician Andrew Taylor Still in 1874.  Still saw a different way to treat disease in the body and studied ferociously to develop the practice of Osteopathy.  He established the first school of osteopathy in 1892 in Kirksville, Missouri.

The path Still walked up until this point was varied and full of difficulty.   Surprisingly it was not Still’s active military service, enduring significant injuries, or the realities of the carnage witnessed on the front lines of the American Civil War that crushed his heart and propelled him to hunt out more significant ways to heal the body. It was in fact the death of three of his children in the late winter of 1864 due to spinal meningitis and then a fourth child not long after due to pneumonia. The immense grief he suffered caused a crisis of spirit and disillusionment in the medical field at that time and propelled him to formulate the ideas of osteopathy.

Keep in mind, in the mid-1800’s there were no antibiotics. Common medical treatments included gut purgatives, bloodletting, arsenic, mercury-based compounds, high doses of narcotics and other toxic treatments. Often, people would die from these so-called treatments. At the time, the training for medical doctors in the Midwest was substandard to that received at well-known universities in the Eastern states. In fact, 70% of doctors in the Midwest were trained merely through apprenticeship. A.T. Still, appalled with his options, passionately began to explore alternative forms of medicine including bone setting and magnetic therapy.

Between 1864 to 1874, he experimented using natural remedies and hands-on methods with patients who were very sick with acute illness, infections and contagious diseases.  He studied extensively, performed detailed physical exams on patients, and experimented relentlessly with a brilliant and open mind guided by a wealth of anatomical and physiological understanding and medical experience. His treatments, consisting of osteopathic thinking, assessment and physical manipulation, worked and thus became more and more refined and eventually reproducible.  Students and physicians took an interest in his methods, wanting to learn from him directly.  In time this led to the formation of the first school of osteopathy in 1892 in Kirksville, Missouri.

Of course, the field of medicine has evolved greatly since 1874, and so has the practice of modern osteopathy.  We acknowledge and take advantage of advancements in science and medicine. We conduct osteopathic research studies and refer to allopathic medical studies equally to help patients.  We work in partnership with all healthcare providers and encourage patients to receive medical imaging, blood work and other diagnostics when indicated.

This synopsis on the history of osteopathy is largely based on episode 6 of Osteopathy Unplugged by Bonnie Gintis, DO and Steve Paulus, DO.  I encourage you to have a listen as they go into great detail of “the scene” of the first osteopathic treatment which is very illuminating to understanding the deeper essence of osteopathy.

My heart is beating, and I’m breathing, and nothing anybody has ever done has changed that.

Rupi Kaur