More Connections Between Emanuel Swedenborg, Ida Rolf & William Sutherland, DO

It turns out there is more to this story about Ida Rolf, William Garner Sutherland and Emanuel Swedenborg. Since the publication of the first piece I have run across two transcripts of Rolf speaking about Sutherland and Swedenborg. One from 1970 and the other from 1973. The 1973 transcript is from the Advanced Training in Big Sur, CA. This transcript is also the basis for Rosemary Feitis’ book Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality.

physicalrealityFeitis quotes Rolf in the book saying she took one of her sons to visit Sutherland as a demonstration model in New York around 1943-44.¹ Sutherland passed away in 1954 so likely in that time frame, between 1943 and 1954, Rolf managed to get into one of Sutherland’s cranial classes, which by that time were only open to osteopaths. In Rolf’s own words:

   . . . they would not admit me to a class because I wasn’t an osteopath. Well, you all know me. I rented myself out as a secretary, so I got my first observation and information about what goes on in the head through that trip.²

Apparently Rolf was “resourceful” and found herself a sympathetic doctor who enrolled in the class and brought Rolf along as secretary.

Rolf goes on to say:

Cranio-osteopathy was a very great insight. It was so great an insight that there is a well-founded belief, started by people whose integrity I completely respect, that it wasn’t the insight of Dr. Sutherland at all, it was the insight of Swedenborg. What Dr. Sutherland was teaching, and what seemingly did come from the great mystic and scientist Swedenborg, was not merely that there were reflex points on the head, but that the head was part of the respiratory system. He taught that respiration was not a movement of the lungs, except secondarily; it was a movement of the head, which by this movement pumped spinal fluid through the spinal column. This seemed unbelievable to scientists at the time. Swedenborg wrote a book called The Brain, which seemed to imply some of the premises later gathered together in cranial osteopathy.³

. . . you know me. We have two copies.4

In the transcript from the 1970 class Rolf goes into more detail about Swedenborg.

Emanuel SwedenborgSwedenborg is a man whose followers, as of right now, consider him literally on a par with Jesus Christ. He was a Swede who lived in the 18th century. To a great extent he was a very practical man. He was a much more practical man than you expect in mystics. If I remember, he held government jobs in mining.

All of a sudden the guy got a notion that he wanted to know more about human bodies, and he went from Sweden down into [Paris], and he says, spent something like 2 years in [Paris], just doing anatomy and dissection. . . .  I think it was after that he had this tremendous psychic experience of entering into another world, which he could largely handle at will. And in being in the other world, as he felt it and expressed it, he brought through a very great deal of, presumably, data about what is the soul and how does it act.

And by this time, of course, everybody said, well Swedenborg is crazy, and even today if you are quoting Swedenborg, you will meet up with people who will say, “Oh, well that insane individual, why consider him?” But there is a very sizable community on the face of the earth today, the Swedenborgians, and in every major city there is at least one Swedenborgian church.5

In reading the transcript I ran across another interesting synchronicity. Apparently Rudolf Tafel, (the brother of Adolph J. Tafel of Boericke and Tafel homeopathic pharmacy fame) did the original translation of Swedenborg’s The Brain from Latin to English. It was published in two volumes in 1882 and 1887.

In checking the dates and sources for the previously mentioned transcripts I was referred to a series of articles by Isabell Biddle, DO. I was stunned to find in Volume 1 Issue #1 (the very first Bulletin of Structural Integration ever published) an article by Biddle titled “Swedenborg’s Interpretation of the Human Body in The Light of Recent Research.” In fact, between January 1969 and December 1971 five of Biddle’s articles were published in The Bulletin. In a tribute to Biddle written by Rolf herself and published in The Bulletin in April 1975,6 she writes extensively about Biddle’s

. . . reverence and loyalty to Swedenborg and his teachings . . .

[How Biddle] . . . studied the Swedenborg books dealing with anatomy and physiology, comparing the various editions and texts.

[And how] The extent to which [Biddle] absorbed and identified with the Swedenborg material is evident in her writing.

Ida P. Rolf, PhD

Ida Rolf, Ph.D.

Rolf also speaks about how Biddle was a proponent of Structural Integration and indeed honors her as “one of the pioneer thinkers in Structural Integration.”7  These two women were obviously close friends who shared ideas and had mutual respect for each other’s work.

I could not find out much about Isabell Biddle. The Cranial Academy does have a transcript of a lecture she gave to the College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons in Los Angeles in 1951.8  The topic was, “The Application and Uses of Cranial Technique.” Interestingly enough William Garner Sutherland moved to California in 1951, where he lived until his death in 1954.9  It is also known Biddle corresponded with Reverend Alfred Acton, Ph.D. who was a minister in the New Church during Sutherland’s time. The New Church is founded on Swedenborg’s theological works and explanation of Christianity. Acton was also widely recognized as an expert in understanding, translating and teaching Swedenborg’s scientific works.10  Biddle wrote in a letter to Acton in 1957:

I am making a study of Swedenborg’s philosophical and scientific works as I am especially interested in The Brain. I have your edition and also Tafel’s.

I have studied cranial osteopathy and understand you saw Dr. Sutherland about its relation to Swedenborg’s theory and they seemed to differ: however, I believe they are very similar and that is what I am working out now. The results from treatment indicate Swedenborg’s theory is correct.¹¹

I believe it was likely Biddle’s influence that got Rolf interested in studying Swedenborg’s writings and probably why Rolf was speaking about Swedenborg to her classes in the 1970s. I wonder how many years these two women had known each other and even if maybe it was Biddle who got Rolf into Sutherland’s class those many years before. Up to now, I had thought cranial work was something introduced much later to structural integration. I have come to find out it has been there from the very beginning.


1. Ida Rolf, Rolfing and Physical Reality, ed. Rosemary Feitis (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1990) p. 168.

2. Ed Toal, “Ida Rolf on Sutherland and Swedenborg,” Structural Integration: The Journal of The Rolf Institute®, Vol. 30, No.1 (Winter 2002), 24.

3. Rolf, p. 168.

4. Toal, p.24

5. Audiofiles and Transcripts of the Classroom Lectures of Dr. Ida P. Rolf. Mp3 files and transcripts of original tape recordings. http://www.rolfguild.org/av/B6Side1A.html Scroll down to the section titled Sutherland, Swedenborg, and Boericke.  http://www.rolfguild.org/av/intro.html

6. Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D., “An appreciation for Isabell Biddle, D.O.,” Bulletin of Structural Integration, Vol. 4, No. 4 (April 1975), 7-9.

7. Ibid., p. 9.

8. David B. Fuller, “Swedenborg’s Brain and Sutherland’s Cranial Concept” Annual Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Swedenborg Scientific Association on April 26, 2008. p. 646.

9. Ibid., p.647.

10. Ibid., p.644-645.

11. Ibid., p. 646.

© Carole LaRochelle, 2009.


  1. Great website.
    Its worth mentioning that whilst WG Sutherland’s influence was indeed Swedenborg’s work ‘The Brain’ he was the first to feel and then conceptualize a whole system of osteopathic diagnosis and treatment based on motion present through the entire system.
    There is a tendency especially since D Fuller’s book, online to denigrate Sutherland’s contribution because of his influence by Swedenborg.
    Anyone who has studied Sutherland and his books especially Contributions of Thought will realize that what was Swedenborg’s intellectual discovery became an incredible practice of medicine via Sutherland. Swedenborg never mentioned any therapeutic aspect to his anatomical works. So, perhaps Ida Rolf was not able to grasp conceptually the magnitude of Sutherland’s work precisely because she was not an osteopath.

    • Carole LaRochelle says:

      Dr. Rolf had much respect for Sutherland and even managed to get into a class he was teaching. She was very good friends with Isabell Biddle, DO who was a cranial osteopath and contributed several articles for the early editions of the Bulletin of Structural Integration. I am looking at an interview with Dr. Rolf from 1976 in which she states, “I met Sutherland, and I took one of my sons to him.” She also states in that interview she did a two day seminar with Sutherland in the early 1940’s. So I disagree with you that Dr. Rolf did not “grasp conceptually the magnitude of Sutherland’s work.”

  2. Judy Ebbe says:

    You have an interesting website.

    Clarification on your article about Swedenborg/Swedenborgians:

    You wrote: “Swedenborg is a man whose followers, as of right now, consider him literally on a par with Jesus Christ. ”

    Nowhere in Swedenborgian theology is this ever written. I can personally attest (as a Swedenborgian) that no Swedenborgian considers Swedenborg on a par with Jesus Christ. Emanuel Swedenborg was a man, Jesus Christ was/is God Himself.

    Thank you for letting me set that straight. I hope that you will correct your website article.

    For more information, I suggest going to http://www.swedenborg.com or to http://www.swedenborg.org. Both the publisher of Swedenborgian works and the North American Swedenborgian church will verify what I have written.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Judy,

      Thank you for stopping by my website, reading, and sending me a message. I have posted your message here and responded publicly so that you feel your voice has been adequately heard.

      Actually the line you quote from the article is a direct quote from Ida Rolf, Ph.D. The source is an original audio recording of a lecture she did around July 1970. This is not a sentence I myself wrote. Please click the link I have provided in the footnotes and in the body of the blog post to see the original source.

      Rolf may not have had first hand experience with the Swedenborgian Church and was citing anecdotal information she had heard or learned.

      I mean no disrespect to you or the Swedenborgians, but I need to quote Rolf correctly. That is what she said. She has passed away now and it can’t be changed.

      Thank you again for reading my blog. I have included your links for people who would like more information about the Swedenborgian Church.

  3. Isabell Biddle was my family doctor for the first 21 years of my life. She lived in Glendale rather then Pasadena, and practiced out of her house after closing her Los Angeles office sometime in the late 1950’s. She was a member of the Swedenborgian Church in Los Angeles, as were my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. As I recall, her office wasn’t far from the church, which was at 6th and Westmoreland, just up the street from Bullock’s Wilshire (never accuse the Swedenborgians of not finding the best neighborhoods.) I have some remarkable memories of her healing powers…she was truly an amazing doctor

    • John,

      That is fantastic! Thank you so much for your comment. I understand Isabell Biddle still has an heir. Apparently Biddle had a cabin in Fawnskin. I was hoping to get connected to the heir to get more info on how Dr. Rolf and Dr. Biddle became friends. And yes, the Swedenborgian’s do find the best neighborhoods. 🙂 I recently visited the Swedendborgian Church in San Francisco. It’s in Pacific Heights no less. Thank you again for sharing your memories of Isabell Biddle.

  4. Azzie Sahu says:

    Glad to find this information. I have been searching in Google a for long time.

  5. Eileen Downey says:

    My name is Eileen Downey and I write historical stories about Fawnskin, California. You left a comment on one of my stories. Dr. Isabel Biddle lived in Pasadena and yes, she was a D.O. I would like to share some information, and to be honest I had no idea that she was linked to Rolfing. I do have her heir’s name, address and email.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

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