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History of Osteopathic Medicine

A guide on the history of osteopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine resources available through Gumberg and the web.

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This guide is designed to provide an overview of the history of osteopathic medicine as well as relevant Gumberg Library resources and additional websites on the topic of osteopathic medicine.

What is Osteopathic Medicine?

Osteopathic medicine is a whole-person approach to medicine and is founded on the philosophy that all body systems are interrelated and dependent upon one another for good health. 

An early definition of osteopathic medicine by Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathic medicine, reads: 

An early definition of osteopathic medicine, handwritten and signed by A.T. Still, MD, DO. Museum of Osteopathic Medicine

"Osteopathy is that science which consists of such exact exhaustive and verifiable knowledge of the structure and functions of the human mechanism, anatomical, physiological, and psychological, including the chemistry and physics of its known elements, as has made discoverable certain organic laws and remedial resources, within the body itself, by which nature under scientific treatment peculiar to osteopathic practice, apart from all ordinary methods of extraneous, artificial, or medicinal stimulation, and in harmonious accord with its own mechanical principles, molecular activities, and metabolic processes, may recover from displacements, disorganizations, derangements, and consequent diseases, and regain its normal equilibrium of form and function in health and strength."

Still, A. T. (1908). Autobiography of A.T. Still. Kirksville, MO: A.T. Still.

Osteopathic Medical Training 

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine practice a whole-body approach to medicine, with a focus on preventative health care. Osteopathic physicians (DOs) are fully trained and licensed doctors. A doctor of osteopathic medicine graduates from an accredited osteopathic medical school. As part of their education, DOs are specially trained in Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) to advance the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness. Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) also known as Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM) is a hands-on treatment method that includes a set of techniques used by osteopathic physicians to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness and injury. This training provides osteopathic physicians with a better understanding of how an injury or illness in one part of the body can affect another. DOs also receive additional training in the musculoskeletal system, the body's interconnected system of nerves, muscles, and bones. DOs serve in primary care fields such as internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics. 

The History of Osteopathic Medicine

“The human body is a machine run by the unseen force called life, and that it may be run harmoniously it is necessary that there be liberty of blood, nerves, and arteries from their generating point to their destination.” ––  A.T. Still

Photograph of Andrew T. Still. Library of Congress.

Osteopathic medicine as a form of medical care was developed in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still. Dr. Still developed the osteopathic medical philosophy pioneering the concept of wellness and the importance of treating illness within the context of the whole body. Still’s life experiences helped shape his philosophy of medicine and formed the basis of a new medical approach, osteopathic medicine.

Andrew Taylor Still was born in Lee County, Virginia on August 6, 1828. After studying medicine and serving an apprenticeship under his father who was a physician, Still became a licensed MD. He then went on to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army during the American Civil War. After the Civil War and following the death of three of his children from spinal meningitis in 1864, Still believed that the medical practices of his day were inadequate and harmful. Dissatisfied with the effectiveness of nineteenth-century medicine, Still began studying human anatomy and alternatives to conventional medicine.

Based on his research, Still believed the musculoskeletal system played a vital role in health and disease and that the body contained all of the elements needed to maintain health if properly stimulated. By correcting the problems in the body's structure through the use of manual techniques now known as osteopathic manipulative treatment, Still believed that the body's ability to function and heal could be improved. Still also promoted the idea of preventative medicine and the whole-person approach to caring for patients.

jenette bolles

Photograph of Jenette H. Bolles. Representative Women of Colorado, 1914.

These fundamental osteopathic principles that Dr. Still devised have influenced the profession and have been updated and revised by various organizations today. The current Tenets of Osteopathic Medicine listed below demonstrate the foundational philosophy of osteopathic medicine and have been approved by the American Osteopathic Association House of Delegates.

  1. The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind and spirit.
  2. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance.
  3. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
  4. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unit, self regulation and interrelationship of structure and function.
These beliefs formed the foundation of osteopathic medicine. Based on this philosophy, in 1892, Dr. Still opened the first osteopathic medical school, the American School of Osteopathy, now known as A.T. Still University, in Kirksville, Missouri. The first class consisted of twenty-one students, including six women, one of whom was Jeanette Bolles who is recognized as the first woman osteopathic physician. The American School of Osteopathy was among only a few U.S. medical schools to admit women. Women played a critical role in the start of the osteopathic medical profession.
first graduating class

First Class of the American School of Osteopathy, c.1893. Museum of Osteopathic Medicine.

Today, the total number of osteopathic physicians in the United States has reached 149,000 with women currently representing 44% of all DOs in active practice. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 11,000 DOs. Over the past three decades, the total number of osteopathic medical students and physicians has reached 186,871 in 2023. The philosophy of osteopathic medicine pioneered by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still continues to guide all aspects of medical education and training of osteopathic physicians.