Life story

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

As the profession celebrates 150 years of osteopathic medicine, here’s a closer look at the autobiography of A.T. Still, DO, MD.


This month, the osteopathic medical profession celebrates the 150th anniversary of A.T. Still, DO, MD, first “[flinging] the banner of osteopathy to the breeze” (p. 94) on June 22, 1874. Having worked for the AOA for nearly three years, I felt that now was a great opportunity (if not a bit overdue) for myself to read Dr. Still’s autobiography, and so, to join in on the celebration, I picked up a copy of his book, first published in 1897 and later revised in 1908.

The first half of Dr. Still’s book focuses on his early life and the journey that led to him establishing osteopathic medicine. In the last 200 pages or so, Dr. Still takes readers on a deep dive into his philosophies of medicine and the human body.

In the latter half of the book, Dr. Still also shares some of his speeches made to the first students of the American School of Osteopathy, now A.T. Still University Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine (ATSU-KCOM).

Dr. Still was very passionate about his work, and his passion really shines through in the second half of the book. DOs, osteopathic medical students and those who enjoy philosophy in general will find great value in these chapters. The book also features some unexpected poetry and several beautiful illustrations that readers will enjoy.

Overall, Dr. Still’s autobiography offers a profound look into the life and thoughts of the founder of osteopathic medicine.

Early life experiences

The first few chapters of Dr. Still’s autobiography paint a vivid picture of his life on the frontier. Learning more about Dr. Still’s early life and family was wonderful. These recollections allow readers to glimpse both a foundational context and insight into Dr. Still’s later life and achievements. Although, I must note that animal lovers may want to skip over the first few chapters of the book, as there are a few incidents related to hunting that may be challenging to read.

I particularly enjoyed Dr. Still’s story of “[what] may be said to be [his] first discovery in the science of osteopathy.” (p. 32) One day, when he was about 10 years old, he suffered from a headache. In an effort to ease the pain, young Dr. Still made a swing out of his father’s plow-line between two trees. This proved to be uncomfortable, so he “let the rope down to about eight or 10 inches [off] the ground, threw the end of a blanket on it and [he] lay down on the ground and used the rope for a swinging pillow.” (p. 32) After a nap, he woke up to find the headache gone.

While he says that he knew nothing of anatomy at that time, Dr. Still used that same treatment method every time he suffered from a headache from then on. Later, he states, “[…] I could see that I had suspended the action of the great occipital nerves, and given harmony to the flow of the arterial blood to and through the veins …” (p. 32)

Another highlight of Dr. Still’s autobiography was his recollection of his time serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Just like his father, Dr. Still was a staunch opponent of slavery. Before the official start of the war, violent attacks broke out in Kansas in the 1850s. As he was a traveling physician at that time, Dr. Still often found himself risking his own safety to visit patients.

Of this experience, he writes, “Sometimes a man will take great risks, particularly in times of war, high water, fire and sickness. […] We never know what we will do until we get into a tight place.” (p. 60) This profound statement resonated with me because it speaks to the resilient nature of human beings. Furthermore, risking his own life to visit patients is just one example of Dr. Still’s dedication to his life’s work.

Establishing his osteopathic philosophy

After the conclusion of the Civil War, Dr. Still grew more and more disgruntled with the conventional medical treatments of the day. Many of these treatments, such as bleeding and giving patients arsenic, made patients sicker than they had been before seeking medical care.

When three of his children died of spinal meningitis, Dr. Still “decided then that God was not a guessing God, but a God of truth. And all His works, spiritual and material, are harmonious. His law of animal life is absolute. So wise a God had certainly placed the remedy within the material house in which the spirit of life dwells.” (p. 88) Thus, the science of osteopathic medicine was developed, following Dr. Still’s belief that the human body is like a machine and often has the ability to heal itself without drugs.

His dedication to osteopathic medicine is seen time and time again, especially as Dr. Still shares the obstacles he frequently encountered while trying to introduce the world to it. He says that he was referred to as “a good doctor, a faithful legislator, a sober, sound and loyal man abounding with truth and justice, and a heart full of love to all,” but after proclaiming the merits of osteopathic medicine, “all [his] good character was at once gone.” (p. 97) He was refused the opportunity to speak about osteopathic medicine at Baldwin University, an institute that he had helped build prior to opening his own school.

It is important to note that Dr. Still’s autobiography is a product of its time; some language and specific stories are outdated. However, Dr. Still was remarkably progressive for his time. For instance, after he opened the American School of Osteopathy in 1892, he admitted six women into the first class at a time when few women received much, if any, formal education. In the book, Dr. Still muses about women who studied osteopathic medicine.

He writes, “The women have done well in the classes, clinics and practice, and are as well worthy of diplomas as any gentleman who ever entered the portals of the American School of Osteopathy.” (p. 133) These ideals were certainly not par for the course in the 1800s, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading these passages. From what I glean from his autobiography, Dr. Still truly believed in equality for all.


Overall, I enjoyed Dr. Still’s autobiography. His writing is surprising, insightful and, at times, even humorous. As previously mentioned, those in the field of osteopathic medicine will find Dr. Still’s autobiography to be a welcome addition to their bookshelves.

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of osteopathic medicine, I will leave you with a poignant quote from Chapter 16 that serves as an excellent reminder of the achievements that the osteopathic medical profession has made thus far as well as its ongoing commitment to excellence in patient care: “Let us not be governed to-day by what we did yesterday, nor to-morrow by what we do to-day, for day by day we must show progress.” (p. 201)

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:

The DO Book Club, April 2024: ‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’

The DO Book Club, March 2024: ‘Go by Boat’ and ‘Island Medicine’

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