History of Osteopathy

The term 'osteopathy' was first used by Andrew Taylor Still in 1874. The origin of the word is from the Greek for bone (osteon) and suffering (pathos).

AT Still (1828-1917) was born in Virginia. He was the son of a physician and Methodist preacher, and elected to follow his father into medicine. After studying medicine and a working apprenticeship with his father, he entered the American Civil War (1861-65) as a hospital steward. However, his autobiography suggests that he was able to perform some surgery after showing a degree of medical knowledge and competence.

Andrew Taylor

AT Still also mentions that in his early childhood, he was a persistent headache sufferer, and used to effect some relief by suspending a rope swing between 2 trees and resting his head and neck on it. One of the many experiences which were to be incorporated in the development of osteopathy.

The experiences of some of the basic and dangerous medical practices of the day and the loss of 3 of his children to spinal meningitis in 1864 led Still to the idea that current medicine was ineffective and there had to be another way. He devoted the next 30 years of this life to the development of what would become osteopathy.

After the civil war, Still became known as the ‘Lightning Bonesetter’ and his reputation for the ability to treat many conditions from dysentery to sciatica spread.

The therapeutic system of treatment he devised has its origin in a number of treatment philosophies available at that time. These include phrenology, mesmerism, magnetic healing, bone setting and conventional medicine.

Teaching of Osteopathy in the US

In 1892 an Edinburgh surgeon, William Smith, met AT Still in Kirksville, Missouri. After an exchange of views, the surgeon agreed to teach anatomy to students if Still taught them (and him) osteopathy. From this meeting the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) was established. Initially a 4 month course was offered, however this soon grew to 2 years.

AT Still’s Methodist beliefs were in evidence with the school being open to ‘all creeds and both sexes.’ Indeed the first graduate was reported to be a female student.

The ASO became the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine which in turn became the AT Still University – still teaching osteopathy today.

Osteopathy in the UK

One of the ASO early students was a Church of Scotland minister John Martin Littlejohn (1865-1947), who had been sent to the US to find a climate more conducive to his health.

Littlejohn met Still and enrolled at the ASO. After qualifying, Littlejohn returned to the UK where he is thought to have given the first UK lecture on osteopathy in 1898.

Littlejohn’ experiences and belief in the new treatment was such that he went on to establish the British School of Osteopathy (BSO) in 1917 in Buckingham Gate London. The school stayed on this site until the 1980’s when it moved to Suffolk Street and then in mid 1990’s to its current site on Borough High Street in London.

The initial intake was 20 students who would qualify with a Diploma in Osteopathy. The current BSO produces over 100 graduates annually now, qualifying after 4 years with a Masters degree in Osteopathy (M.Ost). There are a further 4 osteopathic colleges established now, and some universities are now also offering osteopathic degrees.

Statutory Recognition – The UK

Numerous attempts were made in the 1920’s to have the terms "osteopathy" and "osteopath" on the statutes books as protected titles, as are medicine, dentistry, nursing etc. Robust opposition from the medical establishment led to failure in all cases. Finally in 1993 the Osteopaths Bill was passed by parliament leading to statutory recognition on the title. Between 1998 and 2000, all existing osteopaths were required to undergo an arduous registration process to be listed on the register of the newly formed General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). The osteopathic courses available were audited and new graduates of approved schools gained entry on to the same register.

Any person now calling themselves an osteopath must have undertaken approved and appropriate training and demonstrated their safety and efficacy.

Statutory Recognition – The US

Osteopathy in the US followed a rather different course. Beginning in the state of California in the late 1960’s, osteopathy and osteopathic colleges gradually aligned themselves with the orthodox medical profession. The status of osteopathic physician is now equivalent to a ‘regular’ medical physician with osteopaths undertaking prescribing and surgical duties in addition to their osteopathic practice.