Osteopathic history

Two historical artifacts reveal details about the start of osteopathic medicine

As the profession celebrates 150 years, the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine shares two compelling items from its collection, including a cast of A.T. Still, DO, MD’s hand.

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To celebrate the osteopathic medical profession’s 150th anniversary in June 2024, The DO recently talked with Jason Haxton, director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Missouri, who shared details about two intriguing historical items in the museum’s collection. Each was acquired within the past 15 years. The museum currently houses a collection spanning over 100,000 artifacts.

Read more below about these artifacts and learn about the impact they have had on osteopathic medicine.

School of Bones

The first osteopathic medical school, the American School of Osteopathy (now A.T. Still University Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine (ATSU-KCOM)) in Kirksville, Missouri, was opened in 1892 by A.T. Still, DO, MD. However, staff at the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine discovered that Dr. Still actually originally attempted to open the “School of Bones” in 1890 first. They recently acquired a copy of his 1891 annual address to students, shown below.

“Dr. Still always started off the new year with a pep talk of encouragement, and this was his very first one,” said Jason Haxton, the museum’s director. “He had a vision, but too many patients and no rest.”

As part of the School of Bones, Dr. Still had the idea to train five students to become staff in his home, who could then help train the next students, and so on throughout the years. However, at the end of this first year, the students didn’t have the skills and knowledge that they needed in order to be fully prepared to treat patients as osteopathic physicians, and thus, the school was unsuccessful to start.

Although this was likely a discouraging start for Dr. Still, he quickly remedied his mistakes and got to work on mapping out his next steps to start what is now ATSU-KCOM. While he was working to get this moving, another medical professional, William Smith, MD, heard about Dr. Still’s work all the way in Europe, and felt inspired to join the team himself. However, it was in the hopes of debunking Dr. Still’s philosophies, rather than learning more about this new designation. After arriving and diving deeper into Dr. Still’s beliefs and discoveries, Dr. Smith eventually made a 180-degree move, agreeing to serve as the first anatomy professor at Dr. Still’s new school—and receiving the first doctor of osteopathy degree from the school in 1893.

“The power of the profession changed the trajectory of the path of someone who already had a strong career,” said Haxton.

Once what is now ATSU-KCOM was successfully started in 1892, Dr. Still traveled from city to city to treat patients when needed, but mostly worked with patients out of his own home.

A.T. Still's 1891 annual address to students.

Right-hand cast plaster

Howard Kretschmar, DO, who was a Chicago-based artist before becoming a DO, immortalized Dr. Still’s ‘handiwork’ by creating a cast of his right hand in 1897. Kretschmar suggested creating casts of Dr. Still’s hands because that’s what he was known for—using his hands to diagnose and treat his patients’ illnesses.

Shown in the photo below, Dr. Still’s hand had, by this time, provided treatment to countless patients. It is believed that Dr. Kretschmar had Dr. Still stick his hand into a wax-like material, which was then filled with plaster to fill out the form.

After making the cast, Dr. Kretschmar continued to watch Dr. Still’s career and eventually became an osteopathic physician himself, continuing the trend of individuals being so inspired by Dr. Still’s work that they pursued careers in osteopathic medicine.

Howard Kretschmar, DO, created a cast of Dr. Still's right hand in 1897.

Related reading:

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

The 4th wave of osteopathic medicine: Re-establishing osteopathic distinctiveness

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