Hero Next Door: California DO calls it a career at age 101
Doran A. Farnum, DO, is admired for his skills at palpatory diagnosis and osteopathic manipulative treatment. The son of a student of A.T. Still’s, Dr. Farnum earned his DO degree in 1936 from the Kirksville (Mo.) College of Osteopathic Medicine. (Photo by Kelly Rogers / A.T. Still University)
When he retired this past November at age 101, Doran A. Farnum, DO, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., was the state’s oldest physician with an active medical license, as well as the AOA’s oldest member still in practice. Typical of Dr. Farnum, a modest man who inspires by example but doesn’t grandstand, this milestone in a 78-year career occurred without fanfare.
“Doran is a quiet, soft-spoken, very sweet man,” says George J. Pasquarello, DO, an osteopathic manipulative medicine specialist in East Greenwich, R.I., who has known Dr. Farnum for roughly a decade. But Dr. Farnum, one of the first fellows inducted into the American Academy of Osteopathy (AAO), also happens to be someone with amazing anecdotes and accomplishments, according to Dr. Pasquarello.
The son of a Rhode Island osteopathic physician who was a student of A.T. Still’s, Dr. Farnum heard firsthand stories of the profession’s founder while growing up. “Both of my parents knew Dr. Still. My mother was actually treated by him in 1908, when my father was still a student at the college,” Dr. Farnum says.
Despite his father’s ties to A.T. Still and his long involvement in the profession, Dr. Farnum is less well-known than some of his contemporaries. “I didn’t want to be in the front row,” he acknowledges. “I wasn’t interested in association politics.”
His skills at palpatory diagnosis and osteopathic manipulative treatment, however, have earned him the admiration of the AAO’s younger fellows, as well as the devotion of patients, some of whom traveled for hours to see him, says Anthony G. Chila, DO, who knows Dr. Farnum from many years of attending the annual AAO Convocation.
Dr. Farnum graduated from the A.T. Still University—Kirksville (Mo.) College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1936 at the age of 23. He practiced in South Carolina for a couple of years, then moved to Wisconsin, where he was a general practitioner for more than 30 years, primarily in Sheboygan. During this time, he continued to educate himself on OMT and readily shared his knowledge with others.
Dr. Farnum is associated with many of the profession’s legends. Early in his career, he taught with Fred Mitchell Sr., DO, who developed muscle energy techniques in the late 1940s. He also studied and taught cranial techniques through the Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation (SCTF), founded by William Garner Sutherland, DO, in 1953. And he assisted Viola M. Frymann, DO, in teaching OMT to students at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (WesternU/COMP) in Pomona, Calif., after the school opened in 1978.
“Doran was right in the middle of everything,” says Dr. Pasquarello, a former AAO president. “But he doesn’t like to make a big deal about his accomplishments. You have to know something about the history of the profession to realize how connected he was to everything.”
“Doc knew all the luminaries in our profession,” echoes Dr. Chila, who also is a past president of the AAO. “But he didn’t get as much recognition because he is, by nature, a very humble, modest person.”
In 2011, Dr. Farnum did get recognized as a Pioneer in Osteopathy. He was one of several recipients of the new award established by the AAO, The Cranial Academy and the SCTF.
Dr. Chila has been impressed with how Dr. Farnum proactively sought the training he needed and worked hard to develop his skills and style. “For example,” says Dr. Chila, “for several years, he would spend a week or more in Chattanooga, Tenn., to work with and study the methods of Fred Mitchell Sr., one of the profession’s bright lights. He would study aspects of practice, as well as diagnosis and treatment approaches.
“That’s the kind of man Doc is. He wanted to learn as much as he could to provide the best care to patients.”
A few years ago, Dr. Chila, in turn, spent a week with Dr. Farnum in San Juan Capistrano to study the elder physician’s techniques. “I wanted to talk to him, watch his style, see him in his environment,” Dr. Chila says. “What struck me most of all was how tremendously involved he is with soft tissue. In the course of a treatment, the way he talked with a patient about the problem gave time for those hands of his to explore the landscape.
“Any motion that he made was very smooth, subtle and gliding—not sudden, sharp or distracting. That’s not the way most people treat today.”
The art of palpatory diagnosis, which Dr. Farnum long ago mastered, has been largely lost, Dr. Chila contends.
Dr. Farnum speaks highly of his mentors and instructors, such as Dr. Frymann, the famed founder of the Osteopathic Center for Children and Families in San Diego, but tends to downplay his own role as a teacher.
“I took a cranial course back in the 1960s from Viola Frymann, and I used what I learned in practice,” Dr. Farnum recalls. “But I didn’t think I knew enough, so I took the course again after I moved to California. And then Dr. Frymann asked me if I would help her put on a weeklong course for sophomores at the osteopathic college in Pomona. I did that for 10 years.”
“There were about six of us who would assist the students, while Dr. Frymann would do the talking and tell the students what to do. We made sure that they did what they were supposed to.”
A turning point in Dr. Farnum’s life came in 1975, when he left Wisconsin and general practice behind and became an OMM specialist in Southern California. “I was getting too tired from treating so many patients. I averaged around 25 a day and often worked until 9 or 10 at night,” says Dr. Farnum.
In his new solo practice, he worked mornings only and spent at least a half hour with each patient. His wife, who died in 1998, and later his daughter managed the practice.
“We had 45-minute appointments. I usually treated patients for half an hour or maybe 35 minutes,” Dr. Farnum remembers. “Sometimes if a patient had a chronic problem, it would take a little more time. But I had the time. I didn’t have to rush.”
After moving to California, Dr. Farnum also had more time for one of his favorite pastimes, traveling. His sister, Alice Virginia Farnum, DO, who graduated from Kirksville when he did, had moved to Melbourne, Australia, where she established a robust OMM practice. Dr. Farnum and his wife visited his sister a number of times. Developing a penchant for international travel, the Farnums made three trips around the world.
“I’ve been on every continent but Antarctica,” Dr. Farnum says.
In his father’s footsteps
Dr. Farnum’s father, C. Edward Farnum, DO, treated a number of very wealthy families in their hometown of Newport, R.I. “He would make house calls to millionaires, and I would go with him,” Dr. Farnum remembers. “I would go in with him and be seated in one spot in a drawing room or whatever they called it. I was told to sit there, so I did. And I looked at everything there was to see in that room.”
What impressed the boy was the difference his father made in his patients’ lives. One patient he recollects clearly was a teenage girl who fell off a horse and hurt her knee less than a month before her debutante ball. “She had been treated by an MD for two weeks without improvement,” Dr. Farnum says. “Then one of her friends told her about my father. She came into the office four times for osteopathic manipulation. As a result, she was able to dance all night at her coming out party.”
Dr. Farnum also treated his share of millionaires and other notable individuals in his California practice. His most famous patient was Richard M. Nixon, after he resigned as U.S. president. “I treated him once a week—for tension,” Dr. Farnum remembers. “I usually treated him at his home in San Clemente. I also treated his wife, but she came to the office.”
Dr. Farnum would be alone with Nixon for a half hour, while the ex-president’s two bodyguards waited in another room. “I really enjoyed his company,” Dr. Farnum says. “He was a very kind man.”
Dr. Farnum first became Nixon’s doctor through a referral. “There was an osteopathic physician not far from me who had been asked to treat the president, and he didn’t want to do it,” Dr. Farnum recalls. “So he called me and asked if I would.
“I said I would be glad to. I knew the president had trouble with his low back, so I knew I could help him. And, yes, I was very happy to do it—not because of who he was but because he was a man who was hurting.”
When the Nixons were leaving San Clemente, they invited Dr. Farnum and his wife to a large party on the grounds of the estate. “My wife and I were photographed with the president and his wife,” he says. That photo is one of Dr. Farnum’s treasured mementos.
Simple pleasures, great wisdom
Dr. Farnum attributes his longevity to heredity, not to his positive attitude or a full, balanced life. “My father lived to be 94, and my mother was 95 when she died,” he notes.
However, he knows all too well the deep sadness that comes with very old age, having outlived his wife, his sister and even his son, as well as countless peers and patients.
But he still enjoys simple pleasures. “I read. I walk a little,” he says. “I don’t have good balance, so I need to use a cane now.”
Dr. Farnum is unruffled by the many changes taking place in health care today. “He is someone whom God has graced with 101 years so far,” Dr. Chila says. “Even when I was at his office and we went to lunch together every day, he didn’t talk about political stuff or the wholesale rapid changes going on right now.
“But I was able to get him to talk about what practice used to be like. He is one of the few people tied to that earlier generation of thought in the profession.”
Dr. Chila, a veteran educator who has been exploring the profession’s early philosophy and practices, is grateful that he has been able to spend some time with Dr. Farnum.
“I remember a remark he once made at an Academy program. A couple of my students, Doc and I were sitting around a table and we were talking,” remembers Dr. Chila, a professor emeritus of family medicine at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Athens. “And the thing that caught my ear was an expression Doc used.
“He said, ‘Tissue, when it is ready to respond, has to feel like melting butter.’ In my 35 years of teaching, I’ve heard a lot of things but never anything so insightful.”