Founded in the backwoods of the Missouri frontier at the close of the 19th century, osteopathy (or osteopathic medicine, as it has more recently been called) is perhaps the only uniquely American form of complete medicine in existence today. In fact, many believe they were the world’s first medicine. My own experience with the therapeutic uses of essential oils began a little over a decade ago. at that time, a patient I was treating had what was called by D. Gary Young, the dynamic and sometimes controversial founder of the essential oil movement in the united States, an “awakening.” I will have more to say about that encounter shortly. as a physician, integrative medicine practitioner, and herbalist, I was vaguely familiar with essential oils. having studied with the late herbalist dr. John Christopher, I learned that essential oils were volatile, aromatic compounds usually distilled or extracted from herbs or plants.
I knew that essential oils had strong aromas, and they sometimes could be used to confuse the body’s pain mechanism, relieving headaches and relaxing tight muscles. In medical school, I learned about the use of smell to stimulate the brain in cases of traumatic brain injury or coma.
While other healing systems have fallen by the wayside, osteopathy as a profession has persisted by means of osteopathic hospitals, specialists, surgeons and a unique philosophy of healing and medical care. Today, most Americans have never heard of osteopathy. However, using figures derived from the website of the American Association of Medical Colleges, nearly 11% of all American physicians hold a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree (Cohen, 2005). Unfortunately, the practices of many modern day DOs are indistinguishable from their MD counterparts. The majority of today’s DOs are either unaware of osteopathy’s extensive teachings and techniques, or perceive the healing philosophy as too obscure. Lured by the quick fix of pharmaceutical intervention, many DOs may also consider as overly burdensome the delicate, precise, and perceptive palpation skills required for proper osteopathic diagnosis and treatment.
Nonetheless, a small and growing number of osteopathic physicians continue to practice traditional osteopathy. Traditional osteopaths, who remain dedicated to understanding the anatomy and physiology of the human organism, use their hands to diagnose and treat the body, words to comfort and touch the mind, and hearts to encourage and find health for their patients. Moreover, after persistent national and international research, multicenter studies, and publication of clinical results in mainstream journals such as Pediatrics, there is now a renewed and heightened enthusiasm for the benefits of traditional osteopathic care for both adults and children.
Osteopathy was founded at a time when the scourges of cholera, smallpox, and dysentery were capable of wiping out entire families, and the primary treatments for such ills were mercury (in the form of calomel) and bloodletting. in the latter part of the 19th century, osteopathy offered a bold alternative, declaring that the body could heal itself and that every person, regardless of disease, had the potential to get better. Early practitioners of osteopathy also stated openly that many of the day’s medications did not work or, even worse, were potent toxins. This philosophy and approach to care set the osteopathic profession squarely at odds with its mainstream counterpart, represented by the American Medical Association (AMA). in fact, the AMA was founded with a specific mandate to rid the American landscape of the “vile cults” of osteopathy, homeopathy, and botanical medicine.
Whereas the AMA viewed “regular” medicine as being grounded solely in “the truth of science,” osteopathy’s founders had a broader vision. Framing osteopathy not only as a healing methodology but also as a philosophy and social movement to reform the dominant system of medicine, osteopaths viewed physicians as teachers and servants of nature, while decrying the use of mercury and other toxic medicines, questioning vaccination, and encouraging self-reliance.
Andrew Taylor Still, MD (1828-1917) is regarded by most medical historians as the founder of osteopathic medicine. Dr. Still was a frontier physician, considered by some a renegade and radical. Still reviled slavery, objected to the inhumane treatment of women and children, and admitted women to and graduated them from his medical school at a time when women’s brains were thought to be “too small for intellectual pursuits but just right for love” (Sims, 1889). Although Still attended medical school in Kansas City and apprenticed with his physician father, he credited most of his medical learning to “the school of life” as well as careful and meticulous observation, tutelage from American indians, and countless dissections and studies of human anatomy. Dr. Still also garnered considerable experience while working as a surgeon in the Civil War.