Tom Bowen's History  

Thomas Ambrose Bowen was born on 18 April 1916 in Brunswick, Victoria, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne. From the 1950s until his death on 27 October 1982, he developed his unique soft-tissue therapeutic technique that is now known as The Bowen Technique.

Tom Bowen was not formally trained in any medical or alternative therapy discipline. He stated simply that his work was ‘a gift from God’; nevertheless, he considered himself to be an osteopath since his assessment and treatment of each patient reflected the complete physiological situation presenting in the moment.

It was through his general love of sports and his regular attendance at games of Victorian-rules football in around Geelong that Tom Bowen became interested in massage and other soft-tissue manipulation. He watched the teams’ trainers treat injured players and began to learn from them. He observed that particular ‘moves’ on the body’s soft tissue resulted in particular effects. On of the men he met at the ‘footy club’ was Ernie Saunders, a renowned soft-tissue ‘manipulator’ from a suburb of nearby Melbourne. They spent many hours sharing ideas. Saunders is generally believed to have had a powerful influence on Bowen’s skills with manual therapy.

One person who benefited from Tom Bowen’s hands-on therapy was Rene Horwood, the wife of Stan Horwood, a friend of Bowen’s from the Geelong Cement Works. The Horwoods credited Rene’s recovery from a stroke to Bowen’s hands-on therapy. In 1957, they invited him to use their home for seeing patients in the evenings after work. The front room of the home at 100 Autumn Street, Geelong became Tom Bowen’s first clinic.

Bowen did not advertise his work but relied instead on word-of-mouth recommendations. Nevertheless, patients often queued up in the front yard until 3 o’clock in the morning waiting to be treated.

Stan Horwood died a few months later. At his request, Rene looked after Tom. She acted as his mentor, receptionist and business manager for all but two of the 26 years of Bowen’s practice. Rene, who had run a successful hairdressing business in Melbourne, also helped Bowen develop some of his techniques. She outlived him by almost 19 years, dying in September 2001, at the age of 93.

When demand for Bowen’s therapy outgrew the one-room clinic on Autumn Street, Tom and Rene switched to a larger clinic on Latrobe Terrace. All told, Bowen practiced out of five successive clinics – all in Geelong. Tom Bowen treated an average of 14 patients per hour. Two main factors account for his ability to work at this phenomenal pace:

    His uncanny ability to assess each person’s needs with little verbal or hands-on interaction. He was aware of the specific ‘moves’ that were needed (as well as how much hands-on work might be too much for them) by observing them in the waiting room and/or walking to the treatment rooms. As he worked, his super-sensitive fingers would assess, treat and monitor changes in their tissue, allowing him to get maximum results with the minimum number of ‘moves’.

    His assistants. These women escorted the patients into the treatment rooms, took their histories, helped get them onto the treatment beds in the appropriate position. Tom Bowen would move from room to room applying his technique as needed, and would signal his assistants by clicking his fingers to turn the patients over or get them up.

(Note: Nowadays, Bowen practitioners do not work at that rate; most see from one to six clients per hour. Without Tom Bowen’s assessment skills, most practitioners need three or four sessions to get the results that Tom Bowen often achieved in one or two. Even so, the Bowen Technique is remarkable for the speed with which it stimulates healing and the length of time that the results last.)

Before Tom Bowen rented his first outside clinic, he went to the authorities to register his practice. They told him that only physiotherapists were required to register – if he called himself anything else, he wouldn’t have to register. He called himself an osteopath, since that was his philosophical and practical approach to healing. In the early 1970s, however, the regulations were changed; osteopaths, chiropractors, and naturopaths were also required to be licensed and to register with the government. Bowen applied for registration as an osteopath. He passed the practical requirements with flying colours but was denied on other grounds: not having a diploma from a registered academy and refusing to answer abstract questions - saying instead that he had to see and touch clients in order to know which moves would be appropriate in each particular case. After being denied recognition as an osteopath, he changed his title from ‘osteopath’ to ‘manual therapist’.

Tom Bowen was demoralized by this rejection, in part because his patients would not become eligible for insurance coverage for his treatments. His concern for his patient’s wellbeing and his lack of interest in money was legendary.

How others learnt Bowen’s technique

As word spread, people came from all over Australia to be treated by Tom Bowen; a large number of practitioners were eager to learn from him as well. Many came to observe him at his clinic, but no more often than once per week and with a maximum of one observer on any given day.

Bowen’s teaching style consisted of answering an observer’s questions in brief, non-technical terms, including a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that would leave much to the imagination. Some observers lasted only on day, while others a little longer, before leaving in confusion or being asked by Bowen not to return. In all the years he ‘taught’ in this way, Bowen considered only six students to be fully competent in his methods. He referred affectionately to these six as his Boys.

One of the founders of Bowtech, Oswald Rentsch was the first of Tom’s Boys, beginning in 1974. Ossie, as he is known to all who meet him spent time regularly with Tome Bowen until his death in 1982.

As Bowen made no notes or charts, Ossie took on the task of documenting Bowen’s work. This involved writing and drawing what he had observed Tom Bowen do, and then returning the notes to Bowen for approval and/or correction. Rene Horwood was very helpful during this process, having worked with Bowen for some 16 years by Ossie’s first visit to the clinic. Over the course of several years, Ossie produced a set of notes that is considered by many to be an accurate representation of many aspects of Tom Bowen’s technique.

In 1976, Ossie and his wife, Elaine, opened a clinic of their own in Hamilton, Victoria, where they practiced the Bowen Technique exclusively. Their clinic was patterned after Bowen’s own, and they followed his advice to never to advertise. Until Bowen’s death in 1982, he visited their clinic from time to time and fine-tuned their moves. In his turn, and like the rest of Tom’s Boys, Ossie visited Bowen’s clinic too, to keep up with the latest refinements.

In 1979, Tom Bowen lost a leg to diabetes. Two of his students ran his clinic during his hospitalization and recovery. Upon his return to the clinic, he worked from a wheelchair. Later on, he used a prosthetic leg that was made for him by friends at the Cement works. Even then, he continued to work at the same rate of about fourteen patients per hour. Until the day before he was hospitalized for the amputation of his other leg (from which he never recovered), he continued developing moves to assist his patients. Sometimes he would call Rene in the small hours of the morning to tell her he had worked out how to treat a particular patient; he continued sharing those refinements with his Boys.

Shortly before Bowen’s death, Ossie promised him that he would make Bowen’s name known around the world. In carrying out his promise, he began to transmit the technique to others. A class in 1986 in Perth, Western Australia, was the first of many. By 1990, Ossie and Elaine were teaching full time so they gave up their clinic in Hamilton. They now travel ten months out of the year, teaching in many countries around the world. Over 10,000 students have learnt the Bowen Technique through the Bowen Therapy Academy of Australia (or Bowtech, which is the company name). More than 70 instructors trained by Ossie and Elaine have taught Bowtech seminars in many countries and in multiple languages.

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