The founder of osteopathic medicine, A.T. Still, MD, DO, is pictured on the lower left in this photo.
Celebrating NOM Week

6 historical artifacts that tell a story about osteopathic medicine

The past informs the present, and these items from the early days of osteopathic medicine offer striking clues as to what the profession would look like over 125 years later.

Many in the osteopathic medical profession may not be aware that video footage exists of A.T. Still, MD, DO, the profession’s founder. This short clip, available below, was likely filmed around 1915 and shows Dr. Still demonstrating an osteopathic manipulative treatment technique for osteopathic medical students. In the video, Dr. Still appears to be quite spry for his 86 years.

To celebrate National Osteopathic Medicine Week, April 18-24, 2021, The DO examined historical artifacts from the history of the profession that provide clues as to how osteopathic medicine would evolve over the years, and may also inform the profession’s future. Researchers from the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Missouri, provided the six items below along with insights about them.

1. The only known video of A.T. Still, MD, DO.

This video of Dr. Still from circa 1915 illustrates the fact that osteopathic medicine has embraced technology and innovation from the very beginning.

“At a time when film was very rare, Dr. Still is seen on film because he embraced advances in technology,” says Jason Haxton, the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine. “We have evidence that he used the best technology available to train his students as well. His faculty was using things like projecting microscopes. He had one of the first X-ray machines this side of the Mississippi.”

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

2. An early, handwritten definition of osteopathy signed by Dr. Still.

An osteopathic medical student found this paper scrap in one of Dr. Still’s textbooks in the 1960s or 1970s.

“He got home and opened the book, and inside was this piece of paper,” says Haxton. “It had a definition of osteopathy written by Dr. Still and signed by Dr. Still.”

The 1897 cover of the issue of Collier's that featured an article about osteopathic medicine (see details below). (Provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

The front of Dr. Still’s autobiography includes a very similar definition to this one, Haxton notes.

This definition of osteopathy reads:

Osteopathy is

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

While osteopathic medicine has evolved from Dr. Still’s days, this early definition of osteopathy, which mentions the body’s tendency to self-heal and emphasizes structure and function, has clear parallels to the tenets of osteopathic medicine that are still followed today.

Five of the six women in the inaugural class of the first osteopathic medical school are shown in this class portrait circa 1892. (Photo provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

3. The first class at a school of osteopathic medicine included six women.

This photo from around 1892 shows the first class of the American School of Osteopathy, which later became the A.T. Still University Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. Women have been an integral part of the osteopathic profession since day one–five of the six women in the very first class are pictured above. One hundred twenty-seven years later, in 2019, 45% of DOs graduating from osteopathic medical schools were women, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

A 1967 order calling Thomas A. Quinn, DO, to report for induction into the U.S. Armed Forces as a doctor of osteopathy. (Provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

4. The first military summons of an osteopathic physician was in 1967.

In World War I, MDs successfully convinced military leaders that DOs couldn’t serve as military physicians, Haxton says. Thus, DOs stayed home and absorbed many of the absent MDs’ patients. Some DOs served in World War II, but not in an official capacity as physicians.

An article about osteopathic medicine ran in the newspaper Collier's in 1897. (Provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Thomas A. Quinn, DO, received the above order to report for service with the Armed Forces as a “doctor of osteopathy.”

“Dr. Quinn’s summons to the Vietnam War in 1967 was the first time a DO was officially called to serve in the military as a physician,” Haxton says.

DOs in the military quickly became a valued asset known for their ability to treat pain and musculoskeletal discomforts with osteopathic manipulative treatment, a modality that is extra valuable on deployments when resources like medications are scarce.

Today, the military wholeheartedly embraces osteopathic physicians, and many military DOs have served in influential and high-ranking positions, including retired Lt. Gen. Ronald Blanck, DO, who served as the military’s Surgeon General from 1996-2000.

5. An 1897 write-up in Collier’s, a respected national newspaper, was the first national publicity osteopathic medicine received.

The article provides an overview of the tenets of osteopathic medicine and an objective look at its merits and credibility, ultimately concluding, “[L]et us by all means investigate osteopathy, and give it a chance.”

Considering that the first osteopathic medical school opened in 1892, this happened rather quickly.

“Osteopathy made its mark very early on,” Haxton says. “For osteopathy to be written about in a national paper at that time meant that people recognized that it was going somewhere.”

Over the years, much national media coverage of osteopathic physicians followed. This past year, stories featuring osteopathic medicine have run on Good Morning America and Fox News and in Wired, Parade and the BBC’s Science Focus Magazine.

The first diploma from the American School of Osteopathy is handwritten and was signed by A.T. Still, MD, DO. (Provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

6. The handwritten first diploma from an osteopathic medical school.

William Smith, MD, was technically the first graduate of the American School of Osteopathy in 1893. He was granted a Diplomate in Osteopathy because the legal right to call themselves doctors had not yet been granted. Dr. Smith, a Scottish MD, was the first anatomy instructor of the American School of Osteopathy.

From its early days, education was a critically important facet of osteopathic medicine. It remains so today. Last year, nearly 6,900 students graduated from 38 colleges of osteopathic medicine across 59 sites in 33 states.

Related reading:

Happy Birthday A.T. Still, MD, DO! 5 facts about the father of the profession

An ocean away: The story of how osteopathy crossed the Atlantic

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