The History Of Cranial Osteopathy


Craniosacral therapy has its origins in the field of osteopathy.

Osteopathy was developed by Andrew Taylor Still, DO. During the Civil War he was first trained as a “hospital steward.” By the time the war was over he was a fully trained surgeon. Arriving back home after the war, he discovered that his children had passed away in a meningitis epidemic. As Still sought to derive meaning from his personal tragedy, he discovered that most of the people who died had been treated by the doctors with very toxic medication. He also discovered that in the counties where there were no doctors and toxic medications, the people did not die. He came to believe that the human body had a healing capacity of its own, and that if there were no “restrictions” within the body, it would usually heal itself. Still went on to found the first school of osteopathy, which still exists today in Missouri. He sought to teach his students how to remove restrictions in the body.

how cranial osteopathy started
Cranial Manipulation

William Gamer Sutherland

A second-year student wandering through the hallowed halls of the American School of Osteopathy before the tum of this century became aware of a mounted disarticulated skull. He stopped and studied the specimen. “Suddenly there came a thought – I call it a guiding thought. That student was William Gamer Sutherland (1962, p.13). His attention had been caught by the beveled articular surfaces of the temporal bone. During his lectures, 40 years later, he referred to this impossible idea as a nagging thought which he spent 20 years trying to forget. He finally concluded that to rid himself of the idea, he would have to prove that mobility in the skull was not possible.

Study Of Bones

Study of the bones and the anatomy textbooks revealed that the articular margins of the vault bones were beveled along their serrated borders. The facing of the bevel changed from internal to external or vice versa somewhere along each articular margin. This mechanism prevents overriding of the bones by traumatic forces applied to the exterior of the skull; however, trauma which does not fracture, mild but continuous restricting bands and/or prolonged muscle pull may result in the restriction of motion at the point in the articulation where the bevel changes.

Interestingly, this type of anatomical construction permits expansion of the articulations when internal force is applied to the cranial bones. Experimentation upon his own head suggested that there was indeed motion in the skull; furthermore, restriction of this articular mobility did affect health. During these experimental years, many different methods were used to restrict a specific movement at specific points in the multiple articulations of the skull. These restrictions were sometimes left in place for several days.

a naked skull to study the history of C Osteopathy
Cranial Bone Structure

Self Experimentation

The impact upon the mental and/ or physical function of Dr. Sutherland was observed and recorded. Occasionally such changes were enough for others to see. His wife commented that she was often fearful that he would forget what he had done or/and, especially, that he would not be able to correct the induced lesion or return to his normal state.

This type of experimentation provided Dr. Sutherland with sufficient information and understanding to begin applying his concepts with his patients. He was soon able to see and feel some of these changes in the heads of his patients. His early efforts with patients consisted of observation and, later, surreptitious palpation of their skulls. He soon became aware of the differences in their heads and, especially, the rigidity present in patients with certain types of complaints.

Cranial Osteopathy On Patients

His keen sense of association soon related some of the patients’ complaints to the type of feeling had experienced when certain restrictions to motion were produced in his own skull. Furthermore, palpatory examinations of the cranium in these patients revealed the same restrictions in articular mobility that he had produced and removed during his trial and error efforts on his own skull. The next obvious step to him was to see if he could remove the motion restriction in someone else’s skull. He tried and succeeded. The tremendous changes in the health of his patients which often followed these treatments absolutely amazed him, even though the patient, expecting help from his doctor, was only grateful.

Happy Patients Help Grow The Practice

Happy patients send more patients. His practice grew. Word soon got out that problems missed and/or unresponsive to more conventional forms of therapy were being helped by this osteopath from Mankato, Minnesota. During this period, 1929-1939, multiple opportunities to lecture at meetings of colleagues were received. Articles were written for the Northwest Bulletin published by the Minnesota Osteopathic Association and for a monthly journal called Osteopathic Profession. Will Sutherland could see great potential for this addition to the osteopathic concept of Andrew Taylor Still; however, his colleagues were unimpressed.

bone manipulation
surreptitious palpation of the skull

Teaching Others

He was willing to expound upon his theories and to teach others his techniques, but there were no takers until the early 1940s. During a 1940 meeting in Denver, Raleigh S. McVicker, D. O. of The Dalles, Oregon became interested and pursued further study with Dr. Sutherland. Later that same year, at a meeting in St. Louis, Perrin T. Wilson, D. o. of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Thomas L. Northup, D. o. of Morristown, New Jersey became actively interested. In Chicago, 2 years later, in a pre-American Osteopathic Association Convention meeting of the six officers of the infant organisation then called the Academy of Applied Osteopathy (currently known as the American Academy of Osteopathy), these men assembled to learn more.

Though their meeting was held away from the convention facilities, the enthusiasm of the participants was so great that the word of this “new concept” spread like wild fire throughout the convention. Anyone who would stop to listen heard about the meeting, about Dr. Sutherland, and about his concepts. This was the first inkling of expansion of the application of the osteopathic philosophy to the cranium which would profoundly affect the future of many of us in the profession.

Development of a Formal Course in Cranial Osteopathy During the period 1940-1944, Doctor and Mrs. Sutherland traveled many thousands of miles across the United States responding to the many requests for information and training in this new idea that the skull was mobile, subject to somatic dysfunction, and responsive to manipulative treatment. Della B. Caldwell, D.O., a matriarch of the profession in Des Moines, Iowa had been reading some of the Sutherland material and had visited his office several times. Early in 1942, she described some of her observations to a colleague, o. Edwin Owen, D. O. Dr. Owen conducted a small medical practice in addition to his faculty obligations at the Des Moines Still College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery.

The Different Fields of Craniosacral Therapy

In the late 1970’s, Upledger brought Craniosacral Therapy (CST) out from the field of Osteopathy, and began to teach it to physical therapists. Over the last thirty-plus years, the Upledger Institute has taught his “biomechanical” approach to CST to many professionals around the country and around the world. Other ideas blossomed into other schools of thought around CST. William Sutherland’s ideas became the “biodynamic” approach; another approach is a “visionary” approach, developed by Hugh Milne, DO, in California.

My work is based primarily in the Upledger’s biomechanical approach, however I am blending this with other approaches over time, as I explore this amazing field.

Development Of Cranial Osteopathy

Over the years more knowledge has been gathered on this area of osteopathy, today the Wellthy clinic practices Cranial Osteopathy in London.