Updated: Mar 30, 2022
A brief history of our osteopathic founder--the man, the myth, the legend: A.T. Still
A.T. Still, (pictured here) born August 6, 1828, Jonesboro, VA (Rogers, 2007) is called by some, the father of osteopathy. As a boy, he was obsessed with anatomy and how things worked. He would constantly study the wilderness and animals around him and investigate the internal and external structures of the game he hunted. His love of physical sciences led him to become a traveling physician in mid-1800’s Missouri, (Lewis 2016). However, even in his role as a doctor, he never liked giving medicine to patients as he rarely saw them cure anything. –Granted, the “modern medicine” of the era often included mercury, whisky, opioids, vomit pills, and other volatile substances, (Lewis 2016, p .45), so it was an astute observation on Still’s part that prescribing these substances regularly was, in fact, doing more poisoning than curing.
It was soon after he served in the war that Still came home to a whirlwind of tragedy. His wife and newest son both passed away within two months of each other, after which he remarried, only to see his second wife’s first child pass away, followed almost immediately by an epidemic of meningitis that swept the country and killed three of his four remaining children,(Lewis 2016, pp. 41-47). So much loss in such a short timespan, regardless of his medical training, led him to feel both deep dispair and anger at the medical discipline for not saving his family. This drove Still to renounce nearly everything he knew about practicing medicine and endeavor to find a better way to treat illness and restore health.
Papa's Got a Brand New Bag
He was basically starting over. He'd always been keen on studying bones and skeletons of just about any species, so it was a logical place to begin again. This led him to refresh a hypothesis he’d begun to formulate in his youth based on the internal and external mechanics of various animals. —He posited that the inherent position or malposition of bones would allow for one of two things:
free flow and drainage of vital fluids throughout the body—thus maintaining a self-regulated health and balance
or, an impeding or damming-up of said fluids, which would eventually lead to ill-health and dis-ease.
His working theory was if you can get bones that aren’t moving moving again, they will stop damming up the pathways of vital fluids that bring health and healing throughout the body. Thus, by reinstating this movement, the practitioner will have also effectively reinstated the body’s natural healing capabilities, otherwise known as, homeostasis. —This thought process led to not only a naming convention denoting the importance of bones, but it also laid the foundation for a healing discipline that did not rely on medicines: just a deep understanding of structural anatomy and the fluidal currents of the body.
The "Proverbial Dog"
So born was Still's epiphany of bones and their relation to health and disease. The term "osetopathy" was coined as its label on June 22, 1874 (Lewis, 2016, p. 85). It was a well thought out name at the time; however, the more dynamic and holistic the discipline became over the years as Still expanded his research and practice to include all tissues, fluids, and even energy, the more the proverbial dog’s name didn’t match the dog anymore.
(See Part 1 to find out about this "dog").
Which leads us to one of the more immediately confusing aspects of osteopathy for newcomers: you’re not quite sure what to make of the name. --And after listening to your osteopath (or your horse's osteopath) for more than 15 minutes, you realize there's whole lot more than just bone-work and acknowledgement of joints that hallmark the discipline. Fluids and fascia and organs, oh my!
But the silver lining surrounding this initial confusion is an artful reminder that we can’t judge a book (or an entire discipline) solely by its cover; moreover, we can’t determine the trajectory or gravity of our own thoughts and ideas by our initial interpretation of them. The name “osteopathy” itself tells us to leave our preconceived notions of what we think we know at the door and open our minds to new possibilities and interpretations of what nature is patiently trying to show us.
We hope you liked our Introduction to Osteopathy series!
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Lewis, J. DO. (2016). A.T. Still: From the Dry Bone to the Living Man. Dry Bone Press.
Rogers, K. (2007). Andrew Taylor Still: American Osteopath. Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrew-Taylor-Still