By Martha Faron, B.A, M.Ost (UK)
“Who is the magician on the wall?” asked one of my patients a few weeks back, as she lay on her side gazing at the portrait of Andrew Taylor Still.
“That is the founder of Osteopathy, A.T. Still, the man to whom I owe my profession,” I replied.
“Was he British?” came the next query.
“No, he was American. “ I replied and then tried to piece together a short biography of who he was and how he came to formulate the philosophy of Osteopathic medicine.
How does one relay the vast legacy of a man who created a branch of medicine and not bore the patient with facts beyond their care? Maybe omit the finer details of the man’s upbringing and focus on the medicine? Basically, it was a struggle to not butcher A.T. Still’s legacy as I tried to piece together what I could remember from studying him as a student.
So last week when Jocelyn Glover, my boss, asked my osteopathic colleagues and I to write something for the upcoming International Osteopathic HealthCare week, I gladly volunteered to introduce A.T. Still, in a brief but historically accurate synopsis. Really now, what osteopath would pass up the opportunity to learn more about their place in the history of Osteopathy while also helping to educate patients on a grander scale?
Andrew Taylor Still was born in Lee County, Virginia on August 6, 1828. He grew up for the most part farming alongside his eight siblings with intermittent access to formal education due to his family’s migration to the American frontier of Missouri and Kansas, where his abolitionist father, Abram, worked as a physician and a Methodist circuit- riding preacher. Historical records attest that A.T. learned medicine by apprenticing under his father and began practice in Kansas on a Native American Shawnee Indian reservation where his father worked as a missionary around 1853. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 temporarily interrupted A.T. Still’s practice of pioneer medicine in Kansas. Fostering the same anti-slavery sentiments as his father, Andrew Taylor Still joined the Ninth Kansas Calvary (US) to serve as a hospital steward. Between 1862 and 1864, A.T. served in the 18th and 21st Kansas Militias, holding ranks of captain and then major before being disbanded at the end of the war.
Still’s return to medical practice in 1864 was marred by great personal loss after three of his children died in a spinal meningitis epidemic, followed by a fourth who died of pneumonia a month later. The gruesome experience of being a Civil War doctor and the inability to save his family from disease drove A.T. Still to question traditional “allopathic” medicine and the application of pharmaceutical drugs, which was in its infancy. Doubtful of the use of medical drugs like mercury and arsenic to purge the body of toxins Still sought to find a method to cure disease without medicine.
Disease is fostered by anatomical or “structural” changes that interfere with the free flow of blood and/or nerve conduction in the body. By finding the abnormality and correcting it, the body would self regulate under its own healing powers and resume a state of health or balance. Still wrote, “The Osteopath seeks first physiological perfection of form, by normally adjusting the osseous frame work, so that all arteries may deliver blood to nourish and construct all parts” in The Philosophy of Osteopathy, which he published in 1899.
This principle of “Find it, fix it and leave it alone. Nature will do the rest” formed the foundation of his practice of Osteopathy.
“Is he holding a flute?” asked my patient.
“No, that is a staff or walking stick,” I said.
Amongst the 80,000 objects, photographs, documents, and books in the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, are found numerous walking sticks that A.T. used on his rambles around the timber and prairie of Kirksville, Missouri to observe nature. Still’s principle aide in understanding healing was nature itself. He explains his drive in his article “How I came to Originate Osteopathy“ printed in the Ladies Home Journal 25 in January 1908, “… I had 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. “ He further echoes the deeper sentiment behind this concept later in the article, “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. “
A.T. Still conceptualized the name for his practice of manual manipulation, Osteopathy or “bone suffering”, from the principle that the bone or osteon was the starting point from which he was to ascertain the cause of pathological conditions. Though he credits himself with coining the name in 1874, he did not publicly use the name until 1885. Shunned by his family, expelled from the Methodist Church and faced with growing criticism for what people in Kansas viewed as radical beliefs, Still moved to Kirksville, Missouri, in 1875 were he found acceptance and grew a reputation as a healer.
In 1892 A.T. Still opened the American School of Osteopathy (ASO), which graduated a class of five women and 16 men in 1894. A.T. Still remained involved in the school till his death at the age of 89 in 1917. Today the school is known as A.T. Still University and currently there are over 96,000 osteopaths in North America.
“It looks like he is giving us the finger!” said my patient, showing hints of a slightly sarcastic sense of humour.
“No, he is pointing to the bones of the leg. I am the osteopath who is more likely to give you the finger,” I joked sarcastically.
In the framed copy of an undated oil painting by George Burroughs Torrey, A.T Still is standing next to a wooden table holding a staff in his left hand and pointing at the long bones of the leg sitting on a table with his outstretched right hand. Still’s principle aid in studying anatomy was skeletal remains. His observations and his direct palpation of disarticulated skeletons of animal and human remains informed his own sense of touch in finding health amongst the landscape of disease. Still understood that the physiological signs and symptom of disease, like heat, redness, swelling, pain, and immobility are the result of underlying mechanical or anatomical changes caused by failure of the nerves in the area to properly regulate the flow of blood in the tissues. He believed that by understanding the mechanics of the body intrinsically and applying manual adjustments to the tissues in times of disease, you could potentially free the estriction of the nerve and enable the blood and tissue to self adjust and repair.
He taught that above all the most valuable tool of the Osteopath is a complete knowledge of the human anatomy, from the macrocosm of descriptive anatomy to the microcosm of cellular pathology. In A.T. Still From dry bone to living Man author and British trained osteopath John Lewis writes, “ Still insisted his student’s possess a skeleton or at least a spinal column, advised them to keep Gray’s Anatomy under their pillows at night, and repeatedly emphasized that the osteopath’s “first lesson is anatomy, his last lesson is anatomy, and all his lesson’s are anatomy,” (p. 159) By understanding the anatomical structure beneath ones hands in health, the osteopath can look and feel of the body in times of disease, find the anatomical derangement underlying the imbalance and attempt to help the body re-adjust it.
“To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease,” is amongst A.T. Still’s most quoted declarations of challenge to all osteopaths today (Still, 1899, p.28).
References and Resources
A. T. Still (1899) Philosophy of Osteopathy, Kirksville: A.T.Still.
A.T. Still (1908) “How I Came to Originate Osteopathy,” Ladies Home Journal 25,
January: 25, 48.
A.T. Still Biography, online. Accessed on 13/04/2017.
[Online] (Accessed on 13/04/2017).
Canadian Osteopathic Association, [Online] (Accessed on 13/04/2017).
Early American Manual Therapy Version 5.0, [Online] (Accessed on 13/04/2017).
Lewis, John (2014) A.T. Still: From the dry bones to the living man. Blaenau Ffestiniog: Dry Bone Press.