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Osteopathy's Sectarian Roots

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

By his own account, at 10 o'clock on June 22, 1874, the "truth" of osteopathy illuminated the mind of Andrew Taylor Still, the son of a missionary who used to assist his father in caring for ailing Shawnee indians. Still attended medical school but never obtained a degree. Still, who had become disillusioned with doctors and drugs following the loss of his children to cerebro-spinal meningitis, hypothesized that all diseases were due to misalignments of the bones (hence, osteo bone, pathy disease). He believed that such misalignments produced muscle spasms which impeded the circulation of the blood resulting in disease (termed the Rule of the Artery). [For a review of Andrew Taylor Still's eccentricities see: Gardner. Fads and Fallacies In The Name of Science. Dover Publications, 1952.]

Prescientific Practices

DOs examined patients for 'luxated' bones throughout the body (not just the spine as do straight chiropractors). Examples in an early osteopathic textbook [1]:

"Lesions of the lower two ribs are important causes of constipation, not only by spinal interference with the sympathetics ..., but by direct mechanical pressure upon the bowels themselves." (p.139)

Epilepsy ".. is caused by lesions interfering with the nutrition of cord or brain, or irritating the motor nerve strands running to the peripheral motor structures, or evicting connected nerves." (p.277)

"Weak eyes, which for two years had required the use of spectacles, were cured at the second treatment by adjustment of cervical bony lesion. The glasses were at once laid aside." (p.337)

"Lesions causing diabetes are usually bony lesions along the spine from the middle dorsal to the lower lumbar region." (p.376) "The lesions usually found in [diphtheria] are muscular and bony lesions in the neck. Dr. Still regards the important cause a contraction of the tissues of the throat and neck..." (p.380)

Osteopathy Today.

Osteopathy apparently evolved into a science-based profession, however, it did not formally renounce sectarianism until 1958. According to a Time magazine report (7/28/58) the American Osteopathic Association formally "booted Still's bones out of its constitution" and declared simply: "The object of this association shall be to promote the public health, to encourage scientific research, and to maintain and improve high standards of medical education in osteopathic colleges." There is little difference between medical and osteopathic education except that DO's learn manipulative therapy as part of their training. A lesson chiropractors can learn from the osteopathic experience is that once having the opportunity to choose between manipulative therapy and medical procedures, DOs have chosen the latter. The reason that DOs hold on to their different title, degree, and educational system seems to be because their unique identity became institutionalized prior to their rejection of sectarianism. Licensure standards and the scope of practice of MDs and DOs are essentially the same throughout the United States.

A Residual of pseudomedicine.

DOs appear to be more likely than MDs to become involved in dubious health care practices. John Renner, MD, President, Consumer Health Information & Research Institute, estimated that 1% of MDs and 10% of DOs were involved in quackery [2]. This may be due to the legacy of osteopathy's beginnings as a pseudomedical system. Such systems are quasi-religious and develop a following of ideological true believers, and attracts sociopaths. One pseudomedical practice that still embarrasses the profession is cranial osteopathy (CO). The CO theory is that the human brain makes rhythmic movements at a rate of 10 to 14 cycles per minute, a periodicity unrelated to breathing or heart rate. CO practitioners claim to be able to feel small cranial pulsations with their finger tips. Restrictions are the sutures which interfere with normal pulsations are a common cause of disease. DOs can "free up" these restrictions and allow the body to return to normal. [The chiropractic version, craniopathy, theorizes that manipulating cranial bones affects spinal fluid pressure.] Critics believe that the rap on the skull done by CO practitioners may be a form of suggestive therapy. A pamphlet Questions and Answers About Osteopathic Hospitals published by the American Osteopathic Hospital Association in 1985 stated:

The DO uses all accepted and recognized forms of diagnosis and treatment, including surgery, medication, lab testing and x-ray treatments. But the osteopathic physician may also use osteopathic manipulative therapy, a technique of using the hands to realign the muscles and bones. The musculoskeletal system ... plays a vital role in health and disease ..."

Manipulative therapy can help muscles to relax, but it does not "realign muscles and bones." The assertion that "the musculoskeletal systems plays a vital role in health and disease" smacks of osteopathy's former sectarianism.


  1. Hazzard C. The Practice and Applied Therapeutics of Osteopathy. Kirksville Journal Printing Co., 1901.
  2. Testimony before the Joint Hearing on Recent Trends in Dubious and Quack Medical Devices, Subcommittee on Regulation, Business Opportunities, and Energy of the Committee on Small Business, and the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care of the Select Committee on Aging, U.S. House of Representatives, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session, Washington, DC, 4/9/92, P.83).

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This article was posted on December 29, 2000.