Still: How I Came To Originate Osteopathy

Editor’s Note: On the theory that the road which leads to discovery is always interesting, Doctor Still was asked by the Editors of The Ladies Home Journal to tell the circumstances which led to his discovery of the comparatively new and growing medical school called “Osteopathy.” Doctor Still, at the age of seventy-nine, lives at Kirksville, Missouri, which may be said to be the seat of the new school which aims to treat human ills without medicine, as it is there that the chief institution of learning of the new medical science, the American School of Osteopathy, is located.

My first awakening to the principles which today have culminated in the science called “Osteopathy” was made when I was ten years old. I was a boy on my father’s farm in Macon County, Missouri. I was subject to sick headaches, and while suffering from one of these attacks one day, I was instinctively led to make a swing of my father’s plow line between two trees. My head hurt too much to make a swinging comfortable. I let the line down to within eight or ten inches of the ground, threw the end of a blanket on it, and lay down on the ground using the lines for a swinging pillow. To my surprise, I soon began to feel easier, and went to sleep. In a little while, I got up with headache and fever gone. This discovery interested me, and after that, whenever I felt my headache spells coming on, I would “swing my neck”, as I called it.

The next incident which gave me cause for thought occurred when I contracted dysentery, or flux, with copious discharges mixed with blood. There were chilly sensations, high fever, backache and cold abdomen. It seemed to me my back would break, the misery was so great. A log was lying in my father’s yard. In the effort to get comfort, I threw myself across it on the small of my back and made a few twisting motions, which probably restored the misplaced bones to their normal position, for soon the pain began to leave, my abdomen began to get warm, the chilly sensation disappeared, and that was the last of the flux.

Mill Machinery Aroused My Interest in Human Machinery

My father, as a pioneer, was a farmer, a mill owner, a minister and a doctor. I studied and practiced medicine with him. Pioneer life on a Western farm in those days was one in which all the inventive powers one might possess were given ample chance to show forth. Nearly all the farm machinery had to be made by hand and on the farm. There was very little to buy and less money to buy with. My father had a grist and saw mill run by water, in the working of which, I became very much interested. Later, I bought an interest in a steam sawmill, and took a course of instruction in milling machinery for practical reasons.

As I studied this mill machinery, I got my first clear idea of the machinery of the human being. My mind invariably associated and compared the machinery of the mill with the machinery of the human being; with the drive-wheels, pinions, cups, arms and shafts of the human with their forces and supplies, framework, attachment by ligament and muscle, the nerve and blood supply. “How” and “where” the motor nerves receive their power and motion, how the sensory and nutrient nerves act in their function, their source of supply, their work done in health, in the parts obstructed, parts and principles through which they passed to perform their duties of life – all this study in human mechanics awoke with new vigor within me. I believed that something abnormal could be found which, by tolerating a temporary or permanent suspension of the blood in arteries or veins, would produce the effect which was called disease.

With this thought in mind came such questions as: What is disease? What is fever? Is fever an effect, or is it a being as is commonly described by medical authors? I took disease to be an effect, experimenting and proving the position, being sustained each time by Nature’s response in the affirmative.

Early in the sixties, I took a course of instruction in the Kansas City School of Physicians and Surgeons, studying such branches as were taught in the medical school of that day. I took up the regular practice of an allopathic physician. I was called a good doctor.

“The Proper Study of Mankind is Man”

During all this time, I devoted a large part of my time to the study of anatomy, which attracted me strongly. I read every book on the subject I could get hold of, but my chief source of study was the book of Nature. I found myself more and more believing that “the proper study of mankind is man,” and the best method to pursue it is to dissect and study the body itself . The skinning of wild animals in my youth brought me into contact with muscles, nerves, and veins.

The skeletons of Indians were my next study in bones, and I went on making numberless experiments with bones until I became very familiar with the entire bony structure of the human body. Finally, I tried an experiment of my own; I made a picture or chart of the bones of the whole body, then stood blindfolded, or with my back to a table. A bone would be handed to me by an assistant. I would take it in my hands and by the “feel” of it would name it and direct where it should be placed on the chart, (right or left). I carried this to the extent of even the smallest bones of the hands and feet and those of the spine, until the chart was filled in complete. This I used to do over and over again. For not less than twelve months I studied bones alone, before taking up Descriptive Anatomy, because I wanted to know what a bone is and its use. I became as familiar with every bone as I was with the words “father” and “mother.” Of course, all this meant untiring work, and I have hardly expected my students to follow me over the entire length of this portion of my road. Nevertheless, I believe as strongly today as ever that the closer they follow this road, the better for their patients. They must study and know the exact construction of the human body, the exact location of every bone, nerve, fibre, muscle and organ; the origin, the course and flow of all the fluids of the body, the relation of each to the other and the function it is to perform in perpetuating life and health. In addition, they must have the ability to enable them to detect the exact location of any and all obstructions to the regular movements of this grand machinery of life, and supplement this ability with skill to remove all such obstructions.

From this study in bones, I went on to the study of muscles, ligaments, tissues, arteries, veins, lymphatics, and nerves.

I began now to feel that I was irresistibly headed for some road: what road I myself knew not. Of one thing I was certain: I was getting farther away from the use of medicines in the treatment of ills and ails. I was a physician of the old school in name but not in fact.

I carried on my theories: I practiced them wherever I could find people who would place confidence in me until the Civil War came on. Then I enlisted and went “to the front.”

On resuming my duties as a private citizen after the war, I took up again the study and research of my all-absorbing topic; how to cure disease without medicine, and on June 22, 1874, there came into my mind the first clear conception of the practical workings of what is now known as the Science of Osteopathy. This day I celebrate as its birthday.

One of the First Cases I Treated

In the Autumn of 1874 I was given a chance to try my ideas on a case of flux. I was walking with a friend on the streets of Macon, Missouri, in which town I was visiting, when I noticed in advance of us a woman with three children. I called my friend’s attention to fresh blood that had dripped along the street for perhaps fifty yards. We caught up with the group and discovered that the woman’s little boy, about four years old, was sick. He had only a calico dress on, and, to my wonder and surprise, his legs and feet were covered with blood. A glance was enough to show to that the mother was poor. We immediately offered our services to help the boy home. I picked him up and placed my hand on the small of his back. I found it hot, while the abdomen was cold. The neck and the back of the head were also very warm and the face and nose cold. This set me to reasoning, for up to that time the most I knew of flux was that it was fatal in a great many cases. I had never before asked myself the question: What is flux? I began to reason about the spinal cord which gives off its motor nerves to the front of the body, its sensory to the back; but that gave no clew to flux. Beginning at the base of the child’s brain, I found rigid and loose places in the muscles and ligaments of the whole spine, while the lumbar portion was very much congested and rigid. The thought came to me, like a flash, that there might be a strain or some partial dislocation of the bones of the spine or ribs, and that by pressure I could push some of the hot to the cold places, and by so doing adjust the bones and set free the nerve and blood supply to the bowels. On this basis of reasoning I treated the child’s spine, and told the mother to report the next day. She came the next morning with the news that her child was well.

There were many cases of flux in the town at that time and shortly after, and the mother telling of my cure of the child brought a number of cases to me. I cured them all by my method and without drugs. These began to stir up comment, and I soon found myself the object of curiosity and criticism.

Why I Started the American School of Osteopathy

Another case which I was asked to see brought upon me still further criticism . A young woman was suffering with nervous prostration. All hope had been given up by the doctors, and the family was so told. After a number of medical councils her father came to me and said: “The doctors say my daughter cannot live. Will you step in and look at her?” I found the young woman in bed, and from the twisted manner in which her head lay I suspected a partial dislocation of the neck. On examination I found this to be true -one of the upper bones of her neck was slipped to one side, shutting off, by pressure, the vertebral artery on its way to supply the brain. In four hours after I had carefully adjusted the bones of her neck, she was up and out of bed.

I went through those interesting yet trying days deaf to criticism and comment. I worked alone, studying, investigating, experimenting.

Gradually, people began coming to me in increasing numbers, and soon I found that my practice was beginning to grow beyond the limits of my strength. Several persons, seeing my increasing practice, now began to urge me to teach them a knowledge of the practical workings of my discovery. In the early nineties I concluded to teach others the principles that underlie my drugless work. I realized that I must have help or break down. I had four sons and one daughter, able-bodies young people, and the thought came to me to educate them in this science in order that they could assist me in my work.

I employed the best talent that I could find to teach them anatomy, physiology and chemistry, teaching them myself, the principles and practice of my own science. After my school had been in running order a short time others became interested and asked permission to join, and the class increased in numbers. At the end of the first year I had some students who were able to help me in a way, and in the course of two years I really had assistance. This was the origin of what is known today as the American School of Osteopathy.

With the origination of the school came, of course, the necessity of a name to designate the science, and I chose “Osteopathy.” I reasoned that the bone , “osteon”, was the starting point from which I was to ascertain the cause of pathological conditions, and I combined the “osteo” with “pathy.”

So, “Osteopathy”, sketched briefly was launched upon the world.

Now What, Really, is Osteopathy?

Many people naturally ask: What is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy is simply this: The law of human life is absolute, and I believe that God has placed the remedy for every disease within the material house in which the spirit of life dwells. I believe that the Maker of man has deposited in some part or throughout the whole system of the human body drugs in abundance to cure all infirmities: that all the remedies necessary to health are compounded within the human body. They can be administered by adjusting the body in such manner that the remedies may naturally associate themselves together. And I have never failed to find all these remedies. At times, some seemed to be out of reach, but by a close study I always found them. So I hold that man should study and use only the drugs that are found in his own drug-store – that is, in his own body.

I do not believe, and I say this only after forty years of close observation and experiments, that there are such diseases as fever – typhoid, typhus or lung – rheumatism, sciatica, gout, colic, liver disease, croup, or any of the present so-called diseases. They do not exist as diseases.

I hold that, separate or combined, they are only effects of cause, and that, in each case, the cause can be found and does exist in the limited or excited action of the nerves which control the fluids of a part of or of the entire body. My position is that the living blood swarms with health corpuscles which are carried to all parts of the body.

Osteopathy is, then, a science built upon this principle: that man is a machine, needing, when diseased, an expert mechanical engineer to adjust its machinery. It stands for the labor, both mental and physical, of the engineer, or Osteopath, who comes to correct the abnormal conditions of the human body and restore them to the normal. Of course, “normal” does not simply mean a readjustment of bones to a normal position in order that muscle and ligaments may with freedom play in their allotted places. Beyond al this lies the still greater question to be solved: How and when to apply the touch which sets free the chemicals of life as Nature designs?

Osteopathy to me has but one meaning, and that is, that the plan and specification by which man is constructed and designed shows absolute perfection in all its parts and principles. When a competent anatomist (as the successful Osteopath must be) in treating the human body, follows this plan and specification, the result will be a restoration of physiological functioning from disease to health.

An Osteopath is only a human engineer who should understand all the laws governing the human engine and thereby master disease.

Osteopathy absolutely differs from massage. The definition of “Massage” is masse, to knead: shampooing of the body by special manipulation, such as kneading, tapping, stroking etc. The masseur rubs and kneads the muscles to increase the circulation. The Osteopath never rubs. He takes off any pressure on blood vessels or nerves by the adjustment of any displacement, whether it be of a bone, cartilage, ligament, tendon, muscle, or even of the fascia which enfolds all structures; also by relaxing any contracture of muscle or ligament due to displacements, to drafts causing colds, to overwork or nerve exhaustion. The Osteopath knows the various nerve-centers and how to treat them, in order that the vasomotor nerves can act upon the blood vessels, bringing about in a physiological manner a normal heart action and freeing up the channels to and from the heart. The Osteopath deals always with causes, has no “rules of action”, as such, but applies reason to each case according to the conditions presented, treating no two cases quite alike. He knows from past experience that the effect seen is produced by a cause with which he must deal in order to give relief.

The Osteopath is a physician. The masseur does not take responsibility of the full charge of a diseased condition, but works under the direction of a physician, and has to do with effects, applying by rote to the body so much rubbing, so much stroking, so much tapping, so much kneading, etc. , there being definite rules laid down applicable to general cases.

Osteopathy is a science and an art also. It includes a knowledge of anatomy, physiology, psychology, chemistry and pathology. It therapeutics are independent and original, and as extensive as the entire medical and surgical fields.

The Ladies’ Home Journal for January 1908