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Osteopathic Physicians


Osteopathic medicine has its roots in the hardships and challenges of 19th-century America. Its developer, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, was born in 1828 in Virginia, the son of a Methodist minister and physician. There were few medical schools in the United States, so Still received his early medical training largely from his father. As the Civil War began, he attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Kansas City, but he enlisted in the army before completing the course.

In 1864, an epidemic of meningitis struck the Missouri frontier. Thousands died, including Still's three children. His inability to help them underscored his growing dissatisfaction with traditional medical approaches. After much careful study of anatomy, physiology, and the general nature of health, he became convinced that cultivating a deep understanding of the structure-function relationship between the parts of the body was the only path to a true understanding of disease. Eventually, Still came to believe in three basic principles that would form the core of his osteopathic approach to the practice of medicine. First, he saw the body as capable of self-healing, producing its own healing substances. Second, he felt health was dependent upon the structural integrity of the body. And, finally, because of these beliefs, he considered distorted structure a fundamental cause of disease.

A system of physical manipulation was an integral component of Still's new practice. He began to compare manipulative therapy with other methods then used by doctors, such as drugs and surgery. Often, he found the use of manipulative methods made drugs and operations unnecessary. Instead, he focused on the musculoskeletal system—the muscles, bones, nerves, and ligaments. Recognizing that structural misalignments often occurred in these areas, he emphasized the system's importance as a major potential factor in disease, ripe for the application of his new manipulative techniques.

Still founded the first college of osteopathic medicine in Kirksville, Missouri, in 1892, basing it upon the fundamental principles of his osteopathic concept. Fewer than 20 men and women graduated from this first osteopathic medical college in 1894. Today, there are more than 40 osteopathic medical schools in the United States. Some are part of major university campuses. During the 2019-20 academic year, these colleges were educating more than 30,367 students.

Andrew Still died in 1917, leaving behind a legacy of enormous importance to the history of medicine. Medicine as we know it was in its infancy in his day, and theories, tools, and techniques we take for granted now—such as the concept of germs, the use of antiseptics, and the diagnostic possibilities presented by radiology—were just beginning. In this challenging environment, Still worked out a practical system of structural therapeutics that has withstood the pressure of later discoveries.

Although practitioners of alternative methods of healing in the United States were—and sometimes still are—seen as a threat by the medical profession, osteopathic medicine has increased in popularity. As the field grew, some students wished to use drugs as well as osteopathic techniques in treating patients. John Martin Littlejohn, for example—a Scotsman who studied with Still—widened the focus of osteopathy by concentrating not only on anatomy, but stressing physiological aspects as well. Unlike Still, Littlejohn wanted osteopaths to learn all about modern medicine, along with osteopathic principles and practices. Later, Littlejohn returned to Britain, where he founded the British School of Osteopathy. Even so, the training of osteopaths in the United States was, in fact, eventually to merge with the training of orthodox medical physicians.

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