Dr. Sean Conley and other doctors walk out of Walter Reed National Military Medical to talk with reporters about President Trump's condition on Monday, Oct. 5

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The doctor who’s been treating President Donald Trump for the coronavirus has roots in Philadelphia. It’s where he trained in medicine.

Dr. Sean Conley, the 40-year-old who’s been at the forefront of national health updates lately, has been the president’s physician for two years. He grew up in Doylestown, and graduated from Central Bucks High School East in 1998. His medical degree comes from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Philly higher ed institution is not your average medical school. Turns out Conley doesn’t actually have an MD degree.

Instead, he’s a DO — a doctor of osteopathic medicine. With that certification, Conley can do everything a regular doctor can do, like prescribe medicine and perform surgery in all 50 states.

The training is different in that it takes a more holistic look at the body than traditional medicine. It emphasizes primary care, and practices that encourage the body to heal itself rather than the immediate prescription of medicine or use of surgery to correct problems.

At first, the practice was highly controversial. During the first decade of PCOM’s existence, it wasn’t even legal in Pennsylvania. Over the next two centuries, debates over osteopathy continued, with traditional physicians critiquing its more controversial practices — like the  in the late 1800s idea to shake a child to cure scarlet fever.

In recent years, the stigma has mostly dissolved as the training and practice have themselves become more legit. Now, earning a DO degree requires the same training as an MD, plus extra coursework.

Conley’s Philly alma mater is considered a pioneer in the field, and helped see it through to the modern day.


Immensely popular from the start

The first person to bring osteopathic medicine to Philadelphia was a woman named Clara Martin. In 1899, the city directory listed her as an osteopath, working from an office on 67th Street near the Cobbs Creek Parkway, just south of Mount Moriah Cemetery.

That same year, two physicians named Snyder and Pressly founded what would become PCOM, then called the Philadelphia College and Infirmary of Osteopathy.

Philly was experiencing a general boom in medical institutions right then, notes a published  history of the school called “To Secure Merit,” by Carol Benenson Perloff. Episcopal Hospital, German Hospital (now Lankenau), Jewish Hospital (now Einstein Medical Center) and Presbyterian Hospital were all founded between 1849 and 1882.

PCOM first opened at 12th and Market, filling two rooms inside a 13-story office tower. Within a year, it outgrew that space and relocated to the Witherspoon building at Juniper and Walnut.

Enrollment kept growing. Many students were people inspired by seeing osteopathic doctors step in after traditional medicine had failed.

Alum Arthur Flack, who graduated in 1906, said he got interested when he saw osteopathic medicine helped cure cases of typhoid fever amid an epidemic in his hometown of Butler, Pa.

“When I first became a student…my marvel was as to the intense devotion manifested by the small group of physicians headed by you,” Flack said in 1925, according to Perloff’s book. “Without such sincere devotion, Osteopathy today would be only a memory in Pennsylvania.”

Another Philly first — before it was legal

Thing is, osteopathy wasn’t even legally recognized when PCOM first opened its doors.

The first attempt to legalize it in Pennsylvania passed through the state legislature in 1905, but was vetoed by then-Governor Pennypacker. It wasn’t until 1909 that a Governor Stuart signed the bill to allow osteopathic doctors to apply for state licensure, 10 years after the Philadelphia college was first founded.

Licensing made the practice more popular, and PCOM continued to outgrow its facilities. The school moved to Spring Garden Street, then to 33rd and Arch, and eventually to North Broad Street.

Some drama: Before the legalization of osteopathy, the college had raised about $3,000. But the founders continued not to pay faculty with actual money for their teaching — they compensated them only with stock in the school.

In 1904, faculty started demanding payment. The founders refused, and there was a theatrical back-and-forth in which the school’s deans threatened to resign unless the two founders resigned. Shockingly, both founders did resign, and a board of trustees was established that still exists today.

By 1910, PCOM was considered a pioneer when it became one of the first to adapt to new statewide legalization requirements, and create a four-year program, which it maintains to this day.

The PCOM campus Credit: Melissa Kelly / PCOM Facebook

Conley likely worked in Philly neighborhoods

After those gazillion relocations and expansions, PCOM landed at its current campus on City Avenue at the Bala Cynwyd border.

The school currently has almost 2,000 students, across areas of study like clinical psychology, biomedical sciences and forensic medicine. Like osteopathic medicine schools nationwide, it’s really tough to get in. In 2019, nearly 7k students applied for just 441 spots in the program.

Dr. Conley, Trump’s doctor, has a degree that takes four years to complete. The first two are spent learning basic and clinical sciences, and the second two doing hands-on work in teaching hospitals.

While enrolled, the Bucks County native likely got plenty of Philly experience, since students spend four months working in city neighborhoods at PCOM’s Community Healthcare Centers.

After their four years, some students declare a specialty and spend more time in school. PCOM reports that a majority of its grads end up in family medicine, general internal medicine, OB/GYN or pediatrics.

In general, osteopathic medicine has grown in popularity in recent years — seen as a more hands-on version of health care. DOs work to understand how all parts of the body are connected, and take a major focus on preventative and primary care.

An osteopathic medicine student in New York told the New York Times in 2014 she became interested in the practice after a standard MD said she’d need surgery to correct her chronic ear infections — but then she went to a DO, who corrected the problem by stretching her neck, she said.

“The infection happened because of fluid in the ear,” said the student, Gabrielle Rozenberg, “and the manipulations opened up the ear canal.”

The practice has become widespread enough that PCOM has opened two more campuses, both in Georgia. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, about 25% of all medical students today are training at an osteopathic school.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...