Osteopathic trailblazers

Pioneers and progress: Celebrating 150 years of osteopathic medicine

As osteopathic medicine celebrates its 150th anniversary, The DO commemorates three trailblazing osteopathic physicians who have made significant contributions and an enduring impact on the profession.

Editor’s note: This article is Part I of a multipart series. Additional articles on historical DOs to Know will be published during the next 12 months as part of our year-long celebration of the anniversary of osteopathic medicine.

It’s been 150 years since the inception of osteopathic medicine. Founded by A.T. Still, DO, MD, in June 1874, osteopathic medicine has become a distinctive and significant facet of U.S. health care. This month, we celebrate not only Dr. Still’s pioneering spirit, but also those who followed in his footsteps. We will also be featuring additional DOs as part of this special series for the next 12 months.

While we aren’t able to feature every historically significant DO in this series, as there are countless osteopathic physicians who have made history and contributed to the illustrious history of the osteopathic medical profession, we are proud to highlight a few individuals who have left their mark. 

Here are some historically significant DOs to Know.

Karen Nichols, DO

AOA Past President Karen Nichols, DO (2010-2011): First female president of the AOA

Below, Dr. Nichols shares a few details about her life and work in this edited Q&A.

You had a lot of ‘firsts’ as a female DO, including serving as the first female president of the AOA, the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association (AOMA) and the American College of Osteopathic Internists (ACOI). How can other women follow in your footsteps?

It has been my honor and privilege to be the first female president of the AOA, ACOI and the AOMA, among other roles. Here are some pieces of advice I can offer based on my experiences.

My overriding advice to my fellow female colleagues is to go with your passion and follow your heart. You are good at what you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be where you are. It is very important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; don’t concern yourself with what other people think about you. Some of the best learning experiences come from something not working out as originally intended. Remember: I win or I learn; success is a process.

What has been the impact of osteopathic medicine on your professional and/or personal life?

The opportunities this profession has afforded me are innumerable. Caring for patients was such a joy. It was difficult, yet satisfying to know I had done my best, honoring each one as a person and making a small contribution to their wellbeing. I loved my patients.

Serving as the dean of Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (MWU/CCOM) was also a pleasure. Just as when I practiced medicine myself, overseeing medical education was difficult yet ultimately satisfying to see my graduates out in the world, caring for patients and now, even caring for me and my family. I cherished my students.

The opportunity to serve the osteopathic profession in leadership roles has been extraordinary. I compare medical organization leadership to the structure of the U.S. Senate: Regardless of the size of the state’s population, every state gets two votes and the opportunity to provide their input. The same holds true for medical organizations. When meeting with presidents of other medical organizations, no one is excluded from the conversation based on the size of their organization. When you know about the subject on which you are speaking and you can articulate it well, you will be listened to, and you can shape better outcomes. I’m honored to serve our wonderful profession!

Barbara Ross-Lee, DO: Breaker of glass ceilings; first Black woman to serve as dean of an American medical school

Barbara Ross-Lee, DO

Below, Dr. Ross-Lee discusses her unique journey in medicine in this edited Q&A.

You have been a figurehead for women in the osteopathic medical profession, serving in numerous leadership positions throughout your career. How did becoming the first Black woman to serve as dean of an American medical school impact your career, as well as the future for women in medicine?

I learned that gender and race do not define your ability to achieve excellence in whatever you choose to do or be. Achievements are the result of self-confidence, preparation, opportunity, focus and hard work. Your successes are measured in the difference that you make for the people you serve, not titles or salaries. Understand that it is not about you alone.

As a wearer of several minority hats (Black, female, osteopathic physician), I brought a diverse perspective to medicine and health care that is shared by other women and minorities. These perspectives are critically needed in order to enhance the overall health and diminish health disparities in our diverse American populations.

Starting medical school in 1970, you were one of only two women enrolled. How did the challenges of medical school, in addition to your experience as a single mother, contribute to you becoming a successful leader in osteopathic medicine?

a. Realistic expectations: Medical school is not like prior school experiences. It requires the application of what you learn with real people. 

b. Time-management: Limit activities based on what I could accomplish and prioritize (in my case) children, school and employment (no federal financial aid existed).

c. Adoption of a new lifestyle: I had to stay focused on what I aspired to accomplish and establish a lifestyle that supported those educational goals with an understanding that it required deferring other activities (my bucket list) until I had attained my priority graduation goal, delivered on my personal expectations (mother) and met my obligations to clinical assignments. Most importantly, I had to learn when I needed to say no and when to take me time (read a fiction book, watch a movie, etc.).

Those skills prepared me to engage other even bigger and more important challenges in medical education and the American health care system, challenges that have existed for decades.

What has been the impact of osteopathic medicine on your professional and/or personal life?

It has been my personal honor to develop and deliver the Osteopathic Health Policy Fellowship (OHPF) program. The impact of this program on the growth and leadership development of the osteopathic medical profession has been tremendously gratifying for me and all of the OHPF alumni.

Osteopathic medicine does not just describe what I do. It also describes who I am. I am reminded daily of the power of a minority vision that established a human-centered approach to health care. 

Edward Stiles, DO, FAAODist

Edward Stiles, DO, FAAODist: OPP pioneer and champion

Below, Dr. Stiles shares a few details about his life and his experience advocating for osteopathic principles and practice (OPP) in this edited Q&A.

How did you become a champion for OPP?

My own clinical practice experiences throughout the years have shaped me into the OPP advocate I am today. I was the first full-time director of OPP service in the AOA profession at Waterville Osteopathic Hospital from 1973 to 1978. While there, I also started the first full-time, hospital-based OMT service. The data collected from this service later enabled me to negotiate the first Level 5 Medicare OMT coding system. I later started practicing OPP in the outpatient setting for the next 19 years in Oklahoma.

My work with OPP resulted from providing quality osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) to patients. These patients had struggled with chronic problems with no relief, then they heard about my care methods. I also had several excellent mentors who gave me a unique, workable clinical paradigm. 

After Oklahoma, I went to Pikeville, Kentucky, and continued working in both inpatient and outpatient settings. In 1997, I became one of the five founding members and initial chair of OPP at the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine (UP-KYCOM), where I’ve also contributed as a professor of OPP for the last 28 years.

What has been the impact of osteopathic medicine on your professional and/or personal life?

Over my 60 years in the osteopathic medical field, I have met and worked with many great professionals from a number of different occupations. During my years of interprofessional work, I found common ground with people from many other disciplines. My off-campus OPP teaching has taken me all over the United States, and even internationally, allowing me to share my perspective of the osteopathic message. 

On a personal level, both my family and I have greatly benefited from seeing osteopathic physicians, who have provided us with high-quality health care over the years.

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

Related reading:

Two historical artifacts reveal details about the start of osteopathic medicine

The DO Book Club, June 2024: ‘Autobiography of Andrew T. Still’

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