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News & Press: History of the Osteopathic Profession

Jon Nelson, DO - History of the Osteopathic Profession

Wednesday, April 10, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Stiger, DO
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Because of the location of the osteopathic schools in the Midwest and East Coast most new graduates of osteopathic training programs choose to remain the areas where they trained.  Some of the more adventuresome graduates choose to locate in one of the Western States including Oregon; a place of great beauty and boundless opportunities for outdoor sports.  Jon Nelson is such a DO and his story as the first board certified osteopathic neurologist in the Northwest is fascinating. 

Jon was born in 1934 in Des Moines, Iowa - the son of a salesman from Missouri and schoolteacher mother. His mother’s obstetrician was Harry Barquist, DO and his family’s doctor was John C.  Agnew, DO. Jon had two sisters one older and one younger. His uncle was Eugene C. Reed, DO. He was the beneficiary of a stable home and was allowed a great deal of freedom as a boy to pursue many interests. He attended Des Moines Technical High School where he was active in sports and student government. He credits his high school education for his knowledge of business and accounting. He had opportunities to apply what he was learning as a salesperson at Sears and Roebuck. He was class president of the senior class and honored as valedictorian on graduation.

After graduation in 1952 he enrolled at Drake University and found that he wasn’t really ready for college. At the time, the Korean War was in full swing and to avoid the draft he enlisted along with two buddies in the USMC. The bulk of his time in the marines was in the fleet marines, by the time his hitch was completed he was a “Buck Sergeant” and seriously considered the marines as a career. He became involved in the “Navigators” - a Christian group and for a time he contemplated becoming a leader in that organization. By 1955 he was out of the military and ready to embark on the rest of his life. To catch up academically he attended Grandview Junior College and later returned to Drake where he finished his studies for his BA degree. During those years he continued to work part time tending bar and other jobs as he worked his way through college. He also met Evelyn Winfrey whom he married in 1957. While pursuing his education he volunteered at local hospitals, including assisting at autopsies.

After graduation it was time to continue his pursuit of a medical education. He was accepted at two allopathic institutions (George Washington in St. Louis and University of Iowa in Iowa City) but ultimately opted for Still College of Osteopathic Medicine (subsequently COMS, now DesMoines University College of Osteopathic Medicine). In addition to his studies he became involved in student government and was elected president of the student body and editor of the school year book. During break in his second year he organized the students into a large work party who painted the entire exterior of that five-story building! During his clinical rotations in his junior year he and two fellow students motorcycled to the Northwest where they visited hospitals in Seattle and Portland. By graduation in 1962 he was accepted at the Flint General Hospital, (osteopathic) in Flint, Michigan for an internship. He quickly discovered that obstetrics and pediatrics was not in his future and decided that internal medicine should be his career. 

He was accepted as a medical resident at DesMoines General Hospital, anosteopathic teaching hospital attached to the Osteopathic Medical School in DesMoines. There under the tutelage of Stuart Harkness, DO he excelled, and at the encouragement of his mentors, he became very interested in neurology. Before long Jon was consulting on an informal basis on neuro cases and several times recommended against the “head crackers” (MD neurosurgeons) going ahead with their procedures that were often not necessary! On the completion of his internal medicine residency in 1965 through the efforts of Murray Goldstein DO, PhD (researcher in neurological and neuropsychiatry at NIH) and his mentor Dr. Harkness, Jon accepted a prestigious offer to study neurology at The University of Oslo’s Riks Hospital in Oslo Norway. This was a tertiary hospital in Oslo serving all of Norway and surrounding Scandinavian countries. Over 200 hundred beds were devoted exclusively to neurology and several neurological subspecialties. For the next two years the Nelsons and daughter and son resided just outside of Oslo learning to speak the language and interacting with the international community that resided and worked in the area. Because he was very adept and willing, even eager, he was called upon to perform most of the spinal taps in the neurology department. As a reward he was trained in cutting edge (for the time) procedures including carotid angiograms, EMGs EEGs etc. Because closing time at the morgue was 4PM (socialist working hours) he was having trouble getting to the morgue to perform the dissections he wanted to do. Finally his chief presented Jon with a brain in a plastic bucket with preservative to take home with him.  Enroute to home on the commute train the train stopped abruptly causing the bucket to tip.  He said that the usually stoic Norwegians were more that a little alarmed as this object came skittering down the aisle of the car leaving a trail of formalin behind! Jon said he was able to quickly retrieve the brain and everyone pretended that nothing had happened.

Upon return to the US he was accepted as a third year resident at the University of Minnesota completing his three-year requirement for certification in neurology. Upon completion of his residency in Neurology he returned to Des Moines (COMS) to practice and to teach. As the only DO neurologist at the school he was given the title of first assistant professor of neurology (actually he was the only board certified neurologist at the school or hospital.) While in Des Moines he received his board certification in neurology from the American Board of Neuropsychiatry (osteopathic). The next four years he taught and practiced in Des Moines. He stated that he probably would have remained in Des Moines but there was a political upheaval at the school where a far less dynamic leader replaced the charismatic college president Thomas Vigoritto,DO.

Jon and Evelyn had always had a yen to move west, so when the leadership at the school changed it was a perfect opportunity to relocate. In 1972 the Nelsons moved to the little town of Forest Grove, Oregon joining the staff of the tiny osteopathic hospital and opening an office as well. Because of his credentials he was immediately in demand as a neurologist in Forest Grove and as a consultant at Eastmoreland Hospital in Portland. Additionally he joined the staff at the Tuality Hospital in Hillsboro, the first DO allowed on the staff at that hospital. During his career he usually had a medical student or intern working with him. Over the years the list of DOs whom he helped educate is impressive indeed! Fortunately, a former student, Paul Aversano, from The Des Moines School  (COMS) decided to join his practice. Soon Dr. Aversano was managing the Eastmoreland end of things while Dr. Nelson managed the rest.

Despite his heavy involvement in his practice Dr. Nelson found time to be with his family as they skied, hunted went on backpacking expeditions and fished. On a dare he was challenged to sky dive. The first dive was from a small plane using used military equipment. This led to a hobby in which he completed over 400 jumps. With his usual organizational skills he formed a diving team that competed all over the United States. An avid outdoorsman he began to hunt and fish, learned how to fly an airplane, and scuba dive. To keep fit he maintained a regular running program and on occasion conducted fitness classes at the local high schools in Forest Grove.

In 1985 tragedy struck and his younger sister who was employed by the Tuality Health systems died suddenly of a “heart attack”. It was a shock to lose this vital, healthy young woman to such an incongruous cause. It turned out that she had been following a very aggressive commercial diet program, which induced dangerously low serum potassium.   Dr. Nelson began to turn his full energies and time to learning more about bariatrics and safe and sustainable weight loss. He became certified in bariatrics and later became chairman of the bariatric certification board and trustee of The American Society of Bariatric Physicians. He opened several branch offices devoted to the treatment of obesity and the maintenance of a healthier leaner life style. Rather than relying on medication he required his patients to be responsible for their weight. Through diet, exercise, and self-discipline he achieved notable success with these patients. Finally in 2004 he retired still working as a consultant in neurology and bariatrics on a pro bono basis.

The Nelsons are now residing in Dundee where they continue an active life style.  They raised their own children Jennie, Joseph and Tammy and later Dan the son of Tammy, who died of a heart attack.  They are blessed to have five lively grandchildren so far.

When asked about the future and what he advises young people thinking of careers in osteopathic medicine, he explained it can be a wonderful career but not the same as when he practiced. If your desire is to help people it is the best, but be realistic. His favorite philosophy: If one examines the word “life”, 50% of the word is “if” but 100% of the time there are no “ifs” in what is.


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