Osteopathic history

How 19th-century news coverage helped shape the early years of osteopathic medicine

The press played a pivotal role in broadcasting the new philosophy of holistic care and shaping the public perception and acceptance of osteopathic practices.


In the late 19th century, a new medical philosophy made its debut on the front pages of newspapers. After A.T. Still, DO, MD, unveiled his vision for osteopathic medicine in 1874, early mentions in the press mingled curiosity with controversy, mirroring the public’s perception.

Dr. Still’s unconventional approach defied the established medical hierarchy, which was fiercely protective of its authority. During an era fraught with doubt, partly due to the divisive opinions on medical practices following the Civil War, osteopathic medicine found favor among individuals seeking drug-free health care and those who did not have success when they visited other physicians.

This journey unfolded over several decades and witnessed the press playing a pivotal role in broadcasting Dr. Still’s philosophy of holistic care and shaping the public perception and acceptance of osteopathic practices. The coverage spanned various facets of the journey, including the founding of osteopathic medical schools, positive journalism, interviews with reporters, testimonials from patients and notable figures undergoing treatment, advertisements by graduates, negative critiques from the establishment and legislative developments.

Journalism’s role in medicine

The press is a battleground for new ideas, where various stakeholders vie for public opinion and legitimacy. Early coverage of osteopathic medicine revealed how established institutions perceived innovation as a threat to their authority and the status quo. It underscores the importance of perseverance, public advocacy and the strategic use of media to overcome initial resistance and eventually achieve mainstream acceptance of new ideas.

The rise of osteopathic medicine

The earliest notice taken of the fledgling discipline reported by newspapers occurred in Kirksville, Missouri, toward the end of the 19th century. The Jan. 14, 1891, edition of The Weekly Graphic reported the “Annual address delivered by A.T. Still, DO, to the students of osteopathy.” Before officially opening the American School of Osteopathy in 1892, Dr. Still was training a few students informally to assist him. In his address, he noted that his students were learning “to treat the sick and teach the philosophy of healing without poisonous drugs … on whose trail at every step you behold death … drunkenness, opium eating, morphine habits, etc.”

A.T. Still, DO, MD, was featured in The Kirksville Graphic on Sept. 27, 1895.

A few months later, the Kirksville Journal published “What the New Science Is: Its Purpose and Benefits.” The article reported Iowa Judge Amos Steckel’s favorable impression of osteopathic medicine, but he astutely noted the uphill struggle facing innovative ideas.

“I am quite interested in this new system and am favorably impressed,” stated Steckel. “… of course, [osteopathic medicine] has to live by its own merits, for all the old systems whether founded in error or not, will usually fight a new discovery.”

In another edition of The Weekly Graphic, the editor recognized that Dr. Still’s “new treatment is attracting such broad attention … and after years of study and experiment, his conclusion is that nervous circulation … may be disturbed by muscular or bone pressure and give rise to various symptoms which we call disease.”

Osteopathic medicine’s appeal gradually spread throughout the Midwest among long-suffering patients seeking relief. From Hutchinson, Kansas, the editor of the Hutchinson Daily News in the May 3, 1894, edition noted “ask any man, woman or child within one hundred miles of Kirksville, Missouri, and they will tell you that [osteopathic medicine] is a new science in the treatment of all diseases.”

Rise of the resistance

Newspaper coverage beginning in 1895 was a flexion point, with criticisms appearing alongside positive press. The St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat in its Jan. 7, 1895, edition assailed osteopathic medicine’s Missouri legislative appeal, caustically writing that “this school comes in with a demand for recognition, and a regular carnival of pills, bones, medical ethics and law is anticipated.” In Labette County, the Kansas Medical Society brought similar charges against another osteopathic doctor, only to see a jury acquit the practitioner. On its rocky road to recognition, osteopathic medicine encountered staunch opposition from traditional medical practitioners and barriers erected by state medical boards.

Osteopathy practices were explained in the Wellington Enterprise (newspaper) on Sept. 20, 1899.

By 1899, osteopathic physicians could be found in every state, and although the seesaw struggle for legalization would continue, Helena, Montana’s The Independent Record reported approval in Missouri, Vermont, North Dakota, Michigan and Iowa.

Resistance faces resistance

Practitioners of osteopathic medicine countered criticism by leveraging patient success stories, putting educational advertisements in newspapers, tapping into the public’s growing desire for other health care options and highlighting their nonpharmacological approach during an era marked by concerns over opioid and alcohol misuse. This approach found an unexpected ally in the press, where investigative reporting on novel treatment methodologies often cast osteopathic medicine in a favorable light.

J.R. Bechtal, a journalist from The Topeka Daily Capital, embarked on a comprehensive investigation of E. Bigsby, DO’s clinic in 1896, engaging in interviews with twenty patients as well as Dr. Bigsby himself to explore this emerging medical phenomenon. He concluded, “the great test is results, and enough results have been obtained to make [osteopathic medicine] worthy of consideration.”

Profession picks up steam

Credibility accrued to the profession when famous individuals sought treatment. From Lacon, Illinois, the Marshall County Democrat reported in 1896 that “little Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of the President, is supposed to be at Kirksville …” A year later, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian reported that “Mrs. McKinley, wife of the President-elect … is undergoing osteopathic treatment at her home in Canton [Kentucky].”

In an influential article titled “What is Osteopathy,” first published in the Minneapolis Times in 1896 and subsequently syndicated across the country, the reporter showcased interviews with satisfied patients, asserting that “nothing can stop the growth” of osteopathic medicine. The Wisconsin State Journal interviewed a local osteopathic doctor in 1897, resulting in a column-length article favorably explaining the practice. Iowa’s The Denison Review proclaimed in 1898 “the science of osteopathy a boon to mankind.”

An advertisement in Alabama’s The Eufaula Daily Times published on Dec. 31, 1899, representing a common refrain across the country, boldly inquired of the sick and suffering, “Why not try osteopathy?” In the decades that followed, a growing body of patients would do just that, and the positive health benefits many of them experienced would help usher in tremendous growth of the osteopathic medical profession.

Coverage led to a broader understanding and acceptance of osteopathic medicine

The media’s spotlight on osteopathic medicine, even when critical, opened doors for public discourse and scrutiny, which ultimately contributed to the field’s evolution. The complex relationship between osteopathic medicine and media coverage exemplifies how even contentious publicity can catalyze awareness and consideration of new ideas in health care, leading to a broader understanding and acceptance over time.

Looking at today’s context, this story also speaks to the evolving nature of health care. These days, holistic and patient-centered approaches are increasingly recognized as vital components of effective medical care. It suggests that openness to innovation, coupled with rigorous scrutiny and integration of evidence-based practices, can lead to significant advancements in health care and other fields. In a broader sense, the story of osteopathic medicine’s journey to acceptance is a testament to the power of persistence and the importance of adaptability.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

5 stories and artifacts that tell us about the history of osteopathic medicine

A.T. Still’s first osteopathic medical school class included 6 women: We talked to some of their descendants

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