Reunion Reflections: Sara “Sally” Sutton – an expert in the art of touch

Sara “Sally” Sutton attending class in 1953

Sara “Sally” Sutton contracted scarlet fever when she was in the sixth grade, which forced her and her mother into quarantine in their home’s second floor. Their family physician, a doctor of osteopathy, visited them every day, climbing a ladder from outside of the house to avoid contaminating other family members.

That inspired her to pursue her medical degree at the Des Moines Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery, now DMU, which she completed in 1953. And that launched an extraordinary career of patient care, osteopathic leadership and teaching. Just a few of her many accomplishments:

  • A Fellow of the American Academy of Osteopathy (AAO), she is the only physician in Iowa to receive the Andrew Taylor Still Medallion of Honor, the academy’s highest honor.
  • She was named the 2011 Mentor of the Year by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).
  • She served on the DMU Board of Trustees for 22 years.

The achievements of Dr. Sutton, who plans to attend reunions at DMU in May, are even more extraordinary when you consider she was just one of two female members of her medical class. Her male classmates grumbled she was taking a class seat away from a returning World War II veteran and predicted she would then just get married, abandoning her career. She wasn’t intimidated, however.

Sara “Sally” Sutton, D.O.’53

“On the first day of anatomy class, we had to go down to the basement where the bodies were in tanks,” she recalls of the former downtown Des Moines campus. “I thought I’d better volunteer for that. I picked up a brush and started scrubbing them. Meanwhile, all the guys were turning green.”

An undergraduate music major, Dr. Sutton was initially concerned about the cost of medical tuition and her age at the time, 21. “I thought I was too old,” she says. Instead, she eventually received scholarships and became secretary of Delta Omega, an osteopathic sorority that met monthly – sometimes at her home – for presentations on topics such as osteopathic techniques and how to establish a practice, as well as for meals and card games.

“We’d invite all the students to our weeknight meetings on osteopathic manipulation,” she says.

Dr. Sutton also worked as a secretary for Professor Paul Kimberly, D.O.’40, in his cranial, neurology and osteopathic manipulation clinic. He invited her to observe his treatments; on Saturdays, he let her treat wives of her fellow students and help her with her techniques.

“That began a lifetime of sharing and learning,” she says.

Remarkably so: In the late 1960s, Dr. Sutton – who by then had a successful practice in Fort Dodge, IA – attended a presentation at an osteopathic convention by Fred Mitchell Sr., D.O., who had developed muscle energy technique. Perhaps because he was a friend of Dr. Kimberly, he agreed to teach her the technique. After observing him several times in his Chattanooga, TN, practice, she invited him to Iowa to give a tutorial, in her home, to a group of physicians. The AAO, of which Dr. Sutton was then an officer, asked her to document Dr. Mitchell’s technique in a set of workbooks she completed with his son, Fred Mitchell Jr., D.O.

Dr. Sutton instructs DMU students on manipulation.

In her practice, Dr. Sutton literally touched thousands of patients. She touched thousands more as an osteopathic educator: She served on the DMU faculty for five years but also for years regularly hosted students in her home for hands-on instruction on osteopathic manual medicine. Those sessions typically began with a home-cooked meal – she is the author of Dr. Sally’s Cookbook – and were infused with the meaning of true patient-centered care.

“She was very adamant about doing a thorough history, a physical exam and a structural exam,” says Sasha Fach Schrunk, D.O.’10, Ph.D., who practices in Onalaska, WI.

These now-physicians worked with Dr. Sutton as students: back row, Matt McClanahan and Tony Kopp; in front from left, Amy Ford, Joanne Genewick, Dr. Sutton, Jed Ballard, Sasha Fach Schrunk and Casey Cook.

Dr. Sutton has come a long way from scrubbing cadavers in that Still College basement, and her impact has been expansive.

“Dr. Sutton wholeheartedly believes in osteopathy. She is able to help students see how important manipulation is in understanding the whole body,” says Susan Beck, D.O.’84, FACOS, a surgeon and medical director of Mercy Katzmann Breast Center in Clive, IA. “She’s an educator who imparts knowledge and learning and also passes on an infectious curiosity and passion. That’s what changes the world.”

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