6. Kirksville (1875-1917): first steps towards the first school of Osteopathy

In 1875 A.T. Still settled in Kirksville, but he was not well received either in the religious community or within respectable society. However, he became friends with some people close to spiritualism who gave him moral and material help. For about ten years he lived in poverty, working as a doctor traveling in nearby cities, presenting himself as a magnetic healer and then as a "lightning-fast adjuster". In 1886 he could afford to buy a house where he opened a studio.

Arrival in the city of Kirksville

On December 1, 1874 A.T. Still took the train and visited Kirksville, a small town not far from Macon City, with about 1,800 inhabitants. Dogs, pigs, and horses wandered the streets, alcohol flowed freely, and fights often broke out (Trowbridge 1991:127). Nevertheless, there were some spiritualists and other people here with whom Still became friends. He would not forget them for the rest of his life, and would always express gratitude in his words when talking about them. We list here some of them:

  • Mrs Ivie, who kept him on pension for two months on credit and was for him like a dear old mother. Perhaps belonging to the circle of spiritualists, she died in 1889.
  • Dr F.A. Grove was one of Kirksville’s physicians and had heard of A.T. Still’s expertise in reducing displacements: he encouraged him to stay in town, sent him his first clients, and was a good friend to him. He was a man of principle, very educated, a traveler, a Freemason and active in the Spiritual and Liberal Association.
  • Charley Chinn, a Freemason and member of the Old Order of Workers, was introduced to Still by Dr Grove and rented the premises above his hardware store to him, even though he knew that he could not be paid.
  • Robert Harris, vice president of the Kirksville Spiritualists Association, was a mechanic, a machinist, and had worked for the government as a gunsmith. A.T. Still claimed that he was one of the best men he had ever known. Harris’s wife was one of his first patients: he managed to heal her from the bouts of vomiting, cramps, convulsions and fainting that she was prone to and that no doctor had ever solved. He died in 1882.
  • Henry Patterson and Alice Patterson, among the first authoritative people in Kirksville who supported osteopathy.
  • Mr and Mrs Morris, owners of a farm where Still went to write the first two books. Mrs Morris was his typist and died in 1902.
  • Lawyer John Musick, a very close friend, described by Still as always ready to welcome a newcomer. He was a deep thinker and an excellent writer who offered him his consultation and assistance in writing two books, as well as his wise advice for several years. Musick, editor of a local newspaper, had published an article against charlatans shortly after Still’s arrival in the city. He died in April 1901 (Stark 2007:50, Lewis 2012:95)

Still was joined by his wife and children in May 1875.

Despite the fact that Still felt welcome among his new friends, he had maintained his reputation of bizarre character, also due to the fact that Kirksville was only fifty kilometers away from Macon City. Respectable people avoided his acquaintance and consultations, not least because of his uncommon appearance – he stubbornly refused to dress like other doctors and went around in a crumpled suit, crooked hat, with his pants tucked into his boots. He avoided calling himself an M.D., but had not found a name for his science yet.

Since he did not have many patients, he went on to become an itinerant doctor, visiting nearby cities. He would have some leaflets printed to announce his date of arrival and slowly began to build a reputation. He would often declaim his ideas and make a public demonstration by correcting a limb. He was very reluctant to charge for treatments and only accepted money when the patients were very insistent and he thought that they could afford it. It was not uncommon for him, instead, to give money to some poor man he had taken care of to buy food (Lewis 2012:122).

On 5 January 1876, Blanche, his last child, was born. For the next ten years, Still’s family lived in poverty.

In March 1875, he appeared in a commercial in which he called himself “magnetic healer” (Trowbridge 1991:129), a nick name that he quit after a few months (Lewis 2012:97,106). According to some sources, it might have been because Still knew a certain Paul Caster, who also called himself ‘magnetic healer’, and had settled in the nearby city of Ottumwa, Iowa, since 1869. Despite being practically illiterate and having some “mental particularity”, Caster had made a fortune by administering treatments believed by many to be miraculous. In 1871 he built a clinic with more than 98 rooms to meet the needs of patients flocking from all across the Midwest. besides introducing a magnetic fluid into the patient using his hands by applying friction and massages, Casper had an excellent diagnostic intuition and believed to act thanks to a divine gift (Gevitz 2014a; Lewis 2012:97).

It seemed like things were finally getting better, when in September Still contracted a typhoid fever that forced him to bed for a year. He sank into despair and even came to consider suicide (Still 1897:136-37; Trowbridge 1991:131) When he learned that his ten-year-old son Charles had gone all alone in search of a job and then full of pride had given his mother the few pennies earned to keep the family going, Still found hope and set off for a slow and difficult recovery.
After this illness he would always carry a cane (Stark 2007:52).

In order to get Still the war pension he was entitled to for his injuries suffered in the Battle of Westport, his brothers Edward and James signed an affidavit in 1878 stating that A.T. Still was healthy before the fighting. Mary Elvira, for her part, sent a plea in 1882, but it was not possible to obtain anything, since the Kansas militias had not made the official oath to be integrated into the Federal troops (Trowbridge 1991:131) and therefore did not appear under the jurisdiction of the US government. The Kansas authorities, for their part, declared that they could not pay the pension because the events had taken place in the State of Missouri (Lewis 2012:122-23).

Between 1878 and 1879, or, according to other sources, from 1878 to 1780, (Stark 2007.52) A.T. Still returned to Kansas to treat a seriously ill sister. When it was time to return home he had no money for the trip. Family members insisted for him to return to a “normal” life, and a relative promised him a loan if he abandoned his strange ideas. In response, Still prepared hair lotion and sold it door to door until he had enough money to buy the return ticket (Trowbridge 1991:133).

From 1883 he began to call himself a lightning bonesetter and continued to be an itinerant physician, accompanied by his children and carrying with him the bag containing some human bones he needed for his demonstrations (Trowbridge 1991:138-39). He initially would take Harry with him, and later also Charles and Herman (Gevitza, 2014).

At this time he began to administer techniques similar to those of the bonesetters, a category of healers who passed professional secrets on to members of their same family. He believed that together with the skills needed to fix the bones out of place it was necessary to have a particular gift. Several bonesetters had emigrated to America, so it is possible that A.T. Still had known some representatives of this art personally or had read some volumes published on the subject (Gevitz 2014a).
A number of conditions treatable by this method was listed at the back of A.T. Still’s business card, including headaches, heart disease, facial and upper-limb paralysis, low back pain, sciatica, rheumatism and varicose veins.

A.T. Still had become a charismatic figure and had established a sort of touring circuit in the surrounding towns. The crowds flocked more and more to attend his demonstrations, announced by a leaflet that he would have printed in thousands of copies. After his wife’s death in late 1882, his brother Edward sometimes worked as his assistant, and from 1884 his son Harry quit his job to help him (Lewis 2012:127).

While practicing his method to correct structural dislocations on his patients, A.T. Still had found that sometimes other pathologies would also resolve, like, for example, chronic diarrhoea or pneumonia, for which the medicine of the time would typically prescribe morphine (Gevitz 2014a; Lewis 2012:116-121).
Despite all his successes, respectable people continued to regard A.T. Still as a bizarre guy Other doctors would call him a charlatan and religious ministers an emissary of the devil. The successful treatments allowed him to buy a house in late 1886, in which he opened a practice (Lewis 2012:130).

In 1889 an event changed the life of A.T. Still and his family: the daughter of the Reverend J. B. Mitchell, a Presbyterian pastor from Kirksville, had fallen and hurt her leg. After six months, despite treatments and consultations with respected doctors in Kansas City and Saint Louis, she would still walk on crutches. Fearing that the reverend would not agree to call the “bone doctor”, the mother and daughter waited for Mitchell to be called out of town to ask Still to visit the girl, without being seen by other people. His intervention was decisive and the girl, finally free from pain, welcomed her father and confessed with some fear how he had obtained the healing. To his surprise, not only was the reverend happy to find his daughter healed, but the following Sunday he preached a sermon from the pulpit, stating that miracles were still possible and publicly thanking Dr. Still for his work. Since then the wealthiest citizens mixed together with the other patients who showed up at the practice or were treated wherever on the streets of the city (Lewis 2012:131-32).

Since his forces were no longer enough to satisfy the large numbers of patients, in 1897 he recruited a first apprentice, James O. Hatten, and in 1890 he took on a second one, W.H. Wilderson. Many claimed that A.T. Still possessed a mysterious gift by which he treated the sick, while he argued that his art was a new science and could be taught. The third apprentice was Marcus Ward, whose asthma had previously been cured by A.T. Still(Gevitz 2014a).

On January 14, 1891, a newspaper in Kirksville published the speech that A.T. Still had given to the students (Weekly Grapic 1891) of what he called the “school of bones”. In this first “Annual Speech” A.T. Still announced that his new health science would be called osteopathy (Gevitz 2014b) and that, contrary to medicine, it was an exact science.

On July 4, 1891, on the occasion of Independence Day, he printed a leaflet entitled “an oration and a Prayer” which, with exalted tones, praised osteopathy and lashed out against doctors (Still 1891).
From mid-September until Christmas 1891, A.T. Still held a paid course for the three apprentices, which also included Charlie, Harry, Hermann and the two youngest children, Fred and Blanche (Lewis 2012:134-35).

On February 15 of the following year, when Wilderson announced that he wanted to leave school and practice on his own, Still prepared a certificate for him, stating that the student had attended the first year of the “O.P.” course and had acquired some skills as a bonesetter and he could treat some diseases, excluding gynecological conditions, then he signed it as “A.T. Still D.O.” (Gevitz 2014b).

Points of reflection

Probably in this period A.T. Still was obtaining exciting results and finally headed towards a success that would prove overwhelming and beyond all expectations. Heseemed to be certain that many others, including some of his family and friends, did not agree with him .
From the certificate issued for Wilderson it can be inferred that even before founding the school Still clearly knew that a year of study would not be enough and that graduates completing the whole course would earn the title of D.O..


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Life of Andrew Taylor Still

Bibliography of the chapter dedicated to the life of Andrew Taylor Still


7. Andrew Taylor Still founds the first school of Osteopathy

By this time, A.T. Still had become well established and well known, therefore he could no longer manage by himself the patients who crowded his practice. The first school of osteopathy was founded in 1892 to train new practitioners and it was a crucial turning point: the town of Kirksville attracted teachers, students and patients who, at the turn of the century, developed the theoretical and practical aspects of osteopathy. As a consequece of such collective work, osteopathy gained the same recognition as the other forms of medicine in several US states.


5. 22 June 1874: osteopathy is born

A few months after moving into his brother Edward's house, A.T. Still had no certainty about his future while his brother was sick and in need of care. Suddenly, in the morning of June 22, 1864, he was struck by an overwhelming vision: all his reasoning of many years about health and disease came to a solution. At that moment he raised the flag of "osteopathy", the name that, years later, he would give to his new science.


4. The Civil War 1861: A. T. Still's enlistment and the post-war years

A.T. Still enlisted with the Northerners to defend the ideals of freedom and witnessed the most atrocious aspects of the war working in the infirmaries. In 1864 he lost three children to illness and this fueled his doubts about traditional medicine remedies. In the post-war period he was socially accepted as an entrepreneur, doctor and politician, but his studies led him to express ideas unacceptable for the social and religious community, which exhausted him until forcing him to move.


3. A. T. Still from moving to Kansas to his second marriage

In 1853 A.T. Still moved to the Wakarusa mission, where he learned the Shawnee language and completed his apprenticeship with his father, becoming an Orthodox physician. After the closure of the mission, he practiced the profession, although with some initial doubts about the effectiveness of orthodox remedies. He founded a sawmill, bought land and was an abolitionist politician in the State of Kansas before its annexation. In 1859 he became a widower with three young children, and the following year he married his second wife, Mary Elvira Turner.


2. A. T. Still: from birth to his first marrige

Andrew Taylor Still was born into a devoted family of pioneers who devoted many hours of their day to Bible study and to the education of their children while living in the wilderness. Two important home moves interfered with regularity of his school attendance. Even though, A. T. Still's great curiosity pushed him to study his father’s medical books, to analyze the anatomy of the animals he would hunt, to carry out mechanical repairs and to keep himself informed on the state of the art of new technologies and ideas.


1. Origins and descent of Andrew Taylor Still

The roots of A.T. Still reflect the typical confluence of America’s diverse sociocultural contributions in that era. His mother, Martha Poage Moore, came from a wealthy and proud family of pioneers with Scottish origins. His father, Abram Still, had English, German and Dutch ancestry, but also - on his mother’s side - a Native American grandmother; growing up on a plantation, he converted to Methodism and became a physician and a staunch abolitionist.