Notes on William Garner Sutherland

WilliamGarnerSutherlandWilliam Garner Sutherland (1873-1954) is largely regarded as the father of cranial osteopathy, which is at the root of most craniosacral approaches. Several other noted osteopaths and chiropractors explored craniosacral approaches around the same time including Still, Cottam, DeJArnette and Weaver. Sutherland, however, is largely regarded as the first one who fully developed the work and taught it systematically.

Sutherland was an ambitious person who left home early and worked for the newspaper. He had a brother who benefited from osteopathic treatment. Afterward, he decided to go to osteopathic school and became a Doctor of Osteopathy in 1900.

Stories vary but it is recognized that Sutherland was fascinated with cranial bones at the school of osteopathy in Kirkwood. He thought that they were “like the gills of a fish,” resembled a “primary respiratory mechanism” and indicated a structure of mobility. Charlotte Weaver, DO was employed by Still to establish osteopathic principles for the head. There were arguments about Sutherland’s theory on the primary respiratory mechanism and it was excluded from Weaver’s early work.

Sutherland tried to dismiss his ideas about cranial motion but, instead, became obsessed with palpating his head and the heads of others. His first wife referred to this as his bony phase as he carried bones with him everywhere and they were all over the house. His obsession was a strain on his marriage and led to divorce.

He established that there was a separate motion from breathing and heart rate. He constructed a helmet for himself that could apply pressure to certain parts of his head. He had his second wife, Adah, and others record observations about his changes in posture, pain, and even personality.  There is a common story here about her releasing him from the helmet, which had rendered him helpless.  As he recovered, he observed fluid movement in the spine and sacrum.

In the fall of 1929, Sutherland mentioned his hobby at The Minnesota State Osteopathic Association meeting. He continued to write articles under the pen-name “Blunt Bone Bill.” He presented his approach again at a meeting in 1932. In 1939 he presented his book, The Cranial Bowl, which was largely rejected. There was strong opposition to the cranial concept. In 1940, his invitation to speak on The Cranial Bowl was withdrawn because of protest.

In the early 40s, his work gained interest in some groups. In 1943, Manual of Cranial Technique was published. The authors, Rebecca and Howard Lippincott, were doctors of osteopathy and followers of Sutherland’s concept. He began teaching regular post-graduate classes in 1944.  In 1945, with the Lippincotts, he published studies on infantile cranial osteopathy. The Osteopathic Cranial Association was founded as a branch of the Academy of Applied Osteopathy in 1946. His work gained greater acceptance and he received numerous honors in the late 1940s. In the late  In 1951, Osteopathy in the Cranial Field was published by Harold Ives Magoun. It was well received, based on sales.  In 1953, he established The Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation.

His definition of the bio-mechanical model of the craniosacral system was groundbreaking. He was tireless and had insatiably curiosity in defining the anatomical and physiological aspects of the craniosacral system. Osteopathy in the Cranial Field has details that would seem difficult to render in a time of such limited technology.  He proved his idea of a craniosacral system with a primary respiratory mechanism that inhaled and exhaled cerebrospinal fluid. This research created a solid following among approaches that focus on biomechanics such as Cranial Osteopathy.

Craniosacral techniques are, however, very subtle in application with results that are inexplicably effective.

In his late years, Sutherland had an experience while tending to a dying man that led him to find a different cycle that he referred to as the “Breath of Life.” Instead of the shorter 6-10 second cycle of cerebrospinal fluid, he found a long tide of somewhere around 50 seconds. He believed it to be the expression of “Intelligence” with a capital “I.” This strongly split the field of practitioners.  It created a following of craniosacral approaches, like Biodynamic Craniosacral, which regard both his scientific research and metaphysical views.

“Within that cerebrospinal fluid there is an invisible element that I refer to as the ‘Breath of Life.’ I want you to visualize this Breath of Life as a fluid within this fluid, something that does not mix, something that has potency as the thing that makes it move. Is it necessary to know what makes the fluid move? Visualize a potency, an intelligent potency, that is more intelligent than your own human mentality.”     –     W. G. Sutherland DO

Sutherland died in September of 1954. He was a true visionary with the humility, will and persistence to struggle for his cause until it gained wide-spread acceptance in his field in his 70s. He left a legacy that has inspired ongoing research and study in a field that continues to grow.


schedule-a-session-red-blueTony Preston has written and taught about anatomy, trigger points and cranial therapies since the mid-90s. He has a practice in Atlanta, Georgia where he sees clients.

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