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Notes on William Garner Sutherland

William Garner Sutherland (1873-1954)

William Garner Sutherland is largely regarded as the father of cranial osteopathy. Most of today’s craniosacral approaches are built on his work. Other noted osteopaths and chiropractors at that time also explored craniosacral approaches. These include names widely recognized in the field today. Cottam, DeJarnette and Weaver are among them. Sutherland, however, is largely regarded as the first to fully developed the work and to teach it systematically.

I read a lot of cranial text. And I listen to people lecture and, well, the stories vary. Opposing doctrines have developed from his work. In this post I attempt to do a solid boiling down of the information, some opposing facts, and, while we’re at it, the legends.

Here we go…

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

Early Direction and Challenges

It is recognized that Sutherland was fascinated with cranial bones at the school of osteopathy in Kirkwood. In his writing, he describes them as being “like the gills of a fish.” And, that they resemble a “primary respiratory mechanism.” Further, his writing states that the structure of cranial bones indicates mobility.

Another osteopath, Charlotte Weaver, was employed by Andrew Taylor Still to establish osteopathic principles for the school’s osteopathic text. At the time, arguments existed about Sutherland’s theory on the primary respiratory mechanism and it was excluded from Weaver’s early work.

In an effort to dismiss ideas about cranial motion, Sutherland became obsessed with palpating his head and the heads of others. His first wife referred to this as his “bony phase.” He carried bones with him everywhere, and they were all over their house. This obsession became a strain on the marriage and eventually led to their divorce.

Nonetheless, Sutherland established that a separate motion from breathing and heart rate exists. He constructed helmets for himself that could apply pressure to certain parts of his head. His second wife, Adah, and others recorded observations about his changes in posture, pain, and even personality. He developed more “helmets” from leather straps and different objects to experiment with changing his cranium.  There is a common story about Adah releasing him from the helmet, which had rendered him helpless.  As he recovered, he observed fluid movement in the spine and sacrum. This led to greater interest in the connection between the cranium and sacrum.

Controversial Publications

It is the fall of 1929. Sutherland mentions his hobby at the Minnesota State Osteopathic Association meeting. Afterward, he writes articles on the topic under the pen-name “Blunt Bone Bill.” In 1932, he presented his approach again at a meeting. And, in 1939, despite strong opposition to the cranial concept, he presents his book, The Cranial Bowl. It is widely read and quite controversial. And in 1940, his invitation to speak on The Cranial Bowl is withdrawn because of protest.

In the early 40s, Sutherland’s work gains interest in some groups. By 1943, A Manual of Cranial Technique is published. The authors, Rebecca and Howard Lippincott, are doctors of osteopathy and followers of Sutherland’s concept. Afterward, Sutherland begins teaching regular post-graduate classes starting in 1944.  With the Lippincotts, he publishes in 1945 studies on infantile cranial osteopathy.

It is now 1946 and the Osteopathic Cranial Association is founded as a branch of the Academy of Applied Osteopathy. Sutherland’s work gains greater acceptance and he receives numerous honors through the late 1940s. By late 1951, Osteopathy in the Cranial Field is published by Harold Ives Magoun. Based on sales figures of the time, it is well-received.  

In 1953, The Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation is established.

Sutherland’s definition of the biomechanical model of the craniosacral system was groundbreaking. He was a tireless researcher and had an insatiable curiosity for 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.  Yet, Sutherland 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.

This picture is adapted from the 1951 book Osteopathy in the Cranial Field. It shows how the SBS mechanism moves during extension. This biomechanical osteopathic model was defined in detail under his teaching foundation. Each section of each bone is detailed in its structural anatomy and physiology through the craniosacral cycle. This book also included assessment and treatment techniques.

By the time this book was published, Sutherland was moving on to an approach that would become the biodynamic model. 2nd and 3rd editions of this book are edited to exclude those concepts.

Birth of Biodynamic Craniosacral

In the late 40s, Sutherland had an experience while tending to a dying man. Unexpectedly, he noticed a different, longer cycle. He referred to it as the “Breath of Life.” He believed it to be the expression of “Intelligence” with a capital “I.” He shifted his focus to observe the cycle as it passed through structures rather than manipulating those structures. He began to diagnose and treat with “The Tide.” Again, his paradigm shift strongly split the practitioners’ field.   This split created a craniosacral approach, Biodynamic Craniosacral, which regards both his scientific research and spiritual views.

Sutherland, like Palmer, the founder of Chiropractic, and Still, the founder of Osteopathy, regarded the life force as part of the healing process. The language around these ideas began to straddle the concepts of science and spirituality. On one hand, practitioners remove restrictions, lesions, and obstructions so that homeostasis can occur. On the other hand, practitioners recognize the spiritual life as the source of healing.

“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. This led to wide-spread acceptance in his field during his 70s. He left a legacy that has inspired ongoing research and study in a field that continues to grow.

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