The Profound Contributions of W. G. Sutherland


Dr. William Garner Sutherland (1873-1954) was one of the first graduates of Dr. A.T. Still’s School of Osteopathy in 1900. In osteopathic college, the anatomical texts of the day reported bones of the cranium were fused by the time one reached adulthood. In school Sutherland disarticulated a temporal bone from a skull, noticed its beveled edges and was struck with the thought, “beveled like the gills of a fish indicating primary respiration.” This was a transformational insight and he dedicated the rest of his life to exploration of this discovery. 

His ideas met with avid protestations by the medical community, not unlike what his mentor Dr. Still had faced in his lifetime. Sutherland pursued his beliefs and called his mission applied anatomy. He stated that he had to “perform many serious experiments on my own cranium.” He devised a helmet that applied pressure to different cranial bones and recorded the physiological changes that occurred in his body in order to prove that mobility between the cranial bones was indeed possible. He reasoned that if the cranial bones were fused, he would not notice any difference in his body with pressure applied. He enlisted the assistance of his wife Ada, to record any changes in temperament that might have escaped him. 

During his first experiment he almost passed out and released the pressure. He immediately felt a spreading of fluid warmth along his spine to his sacrum. He repeated this experiment several times and concluded that not only do the cranial bones move, but so does the sacrum by way of the dural membranes connecting the two. “Had I tried these experiments on another person, I only would have had information; they would have had the knowledge.”

He also wrote about an invisible element contained within the cerebral spinal fluid which he referred to as, “Breath of Life.” He asked his students to visualize this Breath of Life as a fluid within the cerebral spinal fluid, something that has potency, which makes the fluid move with tidal motions. “Visualize a potency, an intelligent potency, that is more intelligent than your own human mentality.”

Through his lifetime Sutherland discovered that he could support healing in his patients at the deepest level having discovered Primary Respiration and the tides that it manifests in the human body. Through Primary Respiration, he observed potency and its Intelligence, spelled with a capitol “I.”  He said, “Don’t try to drive the mechanism through any external force. Rely upon the Tide.” Through a lifetime of fervent discoveries, Sutherland believed that the deepest healing came from the Stillness of the Tide. “It is the Stillness of the Tide, not the stormy waves that bounce upon the shore, that has the potency, the power.” 

Due to his success in patient treatment in the 1940’s The American College of Osteopathy developed a course called Osteopathy in the Cranial Field in which Sutherlands discoveries of Primary Respiration were taught. This Primary Respiration motion included the inherent motility of the brain and spinal cord, fluctuation of the cerebral spinal fluid, mobility of the cranial and dural membranes and articular mobility of the cranial bones. These motions have been validated with the advancement of computerized diagnostic equipment.

Dr. Sutherland’s insights contributed to the development of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which adhere to the principles, discoveries and teachings that he brought to the field. Sutherland advanced the concept that “healing potential lies in the body of the patient’ and it is up to the practitioner to listen for it. He advanced this concept more than any other Osteopath of his generation. 

For further reading see Teachings in the Science of Osteopathy, by William Garner Sutherland