Healing Hands – About Tom Bowen

Geelong Advertiser – Saturday, 3rd April 1999

Healing Hands – About Tom Bowen
By Karen Matthews

​Nearly two decades after his death ‘the Bowen Technique’ is being taught to final year osteopathy students at both RMIT and VUT and is expected to become part of the chiropractic curriculum. KAREN MATTHEW’s delves into the history of a remarkable man.

​Perhaps Tom Bowen may not pass this way again, but the gift he left behind, after more than 30 years working in a profession in which he was never formally qualified, will live on.

​Today, 17 years after his death, he is still remembered as a naturally gifted, self-taught osteopath who through his own special technique managed to help thousands of people overcome or learn to cope with a wide range of injury, illness and disability.

​According to those who knew him best, there were many facets to his character. He could be gruff and certainly had a low tolerance of fools.

​Yet he was humble to a fault, a compassionate man who never pretended to be anything he wasn’t, never judged people, expected anything from them or ripped them off. On the contrary, he rarely charged battlers – and children never.

​Tom Bowen was born in Brunswick in 1916, one of four children in a working-class family at a time when a boy needed only enough education to get him a job. In September 1941, he married Jessie McLean and the couple moved to Geelong where Tom landed a job with a milk carter called ‘Whistler’ Lee.

Later he worked on the wharves, as a general hand in a local woollen mill and eventually the cement works where he developed a keen interest in treating the various aches and pains of fellow workers – in particular bad backs.

​He became friendly with a man called Ernie Saunders who had an excellent reputation in Melbourne as a ‘manipulator’ and Tom would visit his rooms regularly to watch him work and listen to what he had to say. Before long he had developed his own technique and was putting it to good use on his workmates.

Other good friends were Stan Horwood and his wife Rene, who opened their home so Tom had somewhere to treat people of an evening. According to Tom’s older daughter, Pam Trigg, after working at the cement works all day her father would go home, have tea and get changed before going to the Horwood’s to treat people often until late at night. “When Stan died in the early 1960s, Dad decided to leave his job at the cement works and with Rene’s assistance, open his own clinic in La Trobe Terrace,” Pam said. “Over the years the clinic had a number of different locations, eventually settling in Villamanta Street.”

​Word of Tom’s successful technique spread and the clinic quickly built up into a very busy practice. Saturday mornings once a fortnight were devoted entirely to children with disabilities and every Saturday night Tom opened his clinic to injured football players. No appointments were made and the lights didn’t go out until the last player had been seen.

​”There were times as children when we barely saw Dad because he was so busy,” Pam said. “And although we would get angry about this, we remained a very close family. We all got along well with Dad but as children, we know nothing about his technique.

​”He gave so much to others and as a young person I couldn’t understand that – I certainly can now. Everyone today is grasping for money but Dad was different, that wasn’t what he was about at all. In fact, at one point we were all afraid he would be closed down, but he saw the need in people and had a very giving attitude towards life.”

​Geelong chiropractor Romney Smeeton was one of six men who trained under Tom Bowen and still remembers him as a man with great empathy towards his fellow man.

​”He had no formal training for the work he did but was greatly influenced by a group of Melbourne practitioners,” Romney said. “He had a lot of people wanting to learn from him over the years and he didn’t beat around the bush if he thought it wasn’t going to work out.

​”Someone might work with him for three or four days and he’d just say, ‘Look, you just haven’t got it, son’. And that would be the end of that. “I’m not sure he even knew how potent his treatment was because so much of it was intuitive.

​Everything Tom did he expected to get a result from and so he was never surprised when it happened. He was very hard of hearing and loved a joke and I remember that if the noise of a crowded room ever became too much for him he’d simply turn his hearing aid down and smile. He also had a whole pile of funny little remedies for gout and sinus that worked, and a special ointment called ‘white magic’ which had camphor, whisky and gin in it – don’t ask me in what proportions or how it worked, but it was a great liniment for foot injuries.”

​Romney said that while Tom used his hands to heal there was also an aura of positivity about him. “He may not have officially been an osteopath or chiropractor, but he certainly did all the things expected of one and had far more talent than a lot of those practising,” he said. “Tom knew he had powers of healing that were way beyond anything we could do, -but unfortunately his lack of education meant he simply didn’t have the terminology to be able to describe exactly what muscle he was adjusting.”

According to Romney, during the 1970s, the Government Report into Complementary Therapies, titled The Webb Report, found that Tom was treating 13,000 people a year and at one point seeing 100 clients a day, despite his own health problems with diabetes.

​In 1981, after 30 years of practice, Tom applied for acceptance by the Chiropractors and Osteopaths Registration Board under what was known as the ‘grandfather’ clause, which allowed automatic registration of chiropractors and osteopaths without formal qualifications on four conditions.

The applicant had to pay the appropriate examination fee, have successfully practised osteopathic or chiropractic pursuits for at least five years, proven professional competency by undergoing a clinical assessment, and be of good character.

​Tom passed three with flying colours but his lack of formal education was no match for the clinical assessment set down by the board-appointed committee and he subsequently failed the examination.

“In the end, he was allowed to go on practising, but only if he found a new title for himself, so he called himself an alternative therapist,” Romney said. “It made absolutely no difference to his patients, who continued to flock to him for treatment, but he was disappointed because he wanted them to be able to claim medical benefits and unless he was registered they couldn’t.”

​Romney said Tom’s teaching had had an enormous impact on his own work as a chiropractor. “He gave us a technique and procedure – a direction to follow and we should be very grateful for that,” he said. “But there is so much that he has taken with him. What I miss most about him is his immense knowledge – and even then we only scratched the surface. Important to me is the fact that Tom passed on his knowledge for free – that he didn’t charge us anything for it. And I hope that his philosophy about helping people, the way he went about his work and the spirit in which he did it won’t be forgotten in years to come.”

​Geelong osteopath Kevin Ryan also trained under Tom and described him as an osteopath in the true sense of the word despite having had no formal training in that field.

​”He was an incredibly generous man in the sense that with his clinic for the disabled, he never charged a fee for children, and the droves of kids who came to be treated all called him `Uncle Tom’. Because of his poor hearing he used to lip read so it wasn’t unusual for him to switch off to adults. However, whenever he was working with kids he wouldn’t take his eyes off them in case they said something and he wasn’t able to know what they were saying.”

​”He lost a grandchild with cerebral palsy and I believe this was a big force in his life. He felt terribly sad that he’d been unable to do anything to help his little granddaughter and so he put a great deal of energy into helping those he could.”

​According to Kevin, he had been attending Saturday clinics where Tom had been working on a young girl with a withered arm. “After working on it for some time, the arm began to grow and became more useful,” Kevin said. “I was fascinated and asked if I could come along and watch what he was doing. Tom agreed, and I stayed with him for three years.”

​Kevin said Tom was often called out by Geelong police to treat injuries, visited the then Geelong Training Prison where he treated inmates, and attended to Animals with as much care as his human patients.

He had an energy and passion for his work that couldn’t be dampened even after losing a leg through diabetes and when a horse he was treating one time stood on his prosthetic foot he thought it was hilarious. It was the first time he’d ever had a horse stand on his foot and it hadn’t hurt a bit.

Tom Bowen died at Geelong on 25 October 1982, and his funeral was standing-room-only – a fitting farewell for a man who had helped so many throughout his life.

​Since then his work has been recognised in a number of ways, put into practice by those he taught, plus the formation of the Bowen Therapists Association of Australia in 1997.

​But the greatest recognition by far of Tom Bowen’s work is that The Bowen Technique is now being taught to final year osteopathy students at both RMIT and VUT and is expected to become part of the chiropractic curriculum.

​It is the first time anywhere in the world that The Bowen Technique has been taught at the university level.

For his children, Pam, Barry and Heather, it brings a great sense of pride and joy to know that their father’s work has finally been recognised and that people who are treated with The Bowen Technique can now claim their treatment on medical benefits.

​It may have been a long time in coming but recognition for the man who made a major contribution to a field in which he excelled but was never formally acknowledged has finally arrived. Tom would be pleased.

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday, 3rd April 1999
by Karen Matthews