Are Root Biomechanics Dying?

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

Yes. While Dr. Root made a number of substantial contributions to the profession, this author says emerging research has exposed flaws with the subtalar joint neutral theory and the curriculum at podiatry schools has shifted toward alternate theories of foot function.

   Forty-three years ago, Merton L. Root, DPM, established and became director of the first Department of Orthopedics at the California College of Chiropody. This college later became the California College of Podiatric Medicine and is now the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University. The Department of Orthopedics was soon renamed the Department of Biomechanics in order to reflect the relatively new field of foot and lower extremity biomechanics, a scientific discipline that had become of great interest to researchers in the post-World War II era in their efforts to design better and more functional lower extremity prostheses.

   Dr. Root taught and developed many of his concepts within the Department of Biomechanics with his colleagues, including John Weed, DPM, William Orien, DPM, Christopher Smith, DPM and Tom Sgarlato, DPM. These colleagues collaborated with him to help develop new and exciting ideas on foot and lower extremity function, including the publication of four textbooks on podiatric biomechanics.1-4

   Dr. Root was responsible for many important accomplishments. These accomplishments included:

   • establishing the concept of a neutral position for the subtalar joint;
   • developing a classification scheme for many foot and lower extremity deformities;
   • defining eight biophysical criteria for normalcy as a model of ideal foot and lower extremity structure; and
   • creating and developing the modern thermoplastic foot orthosis and its casting and manufacturing techniques.5-7

   In addition, the Department of Biomechanics, which Dr. Root founded, established the Biomechanics Fellowship program at the California College of Podiatric Medicine. Up until 1998, this program provided post-graduate training in podiatric biomechanics and foot orthosis therapy to many nationally and internationally recognized podiatric biomechanics educators.

   I had the great fortune of being able to attend many lectures given by Dr. Root during my years as a student, my Biomechanics Fellowship and early practice years. During these lectures, I was always impressed by the passion that Dr. Root had for the subjects of foot and lower extremity function, and foot orthosis therapy. He was not only a walking repository of valuable information but was a dynamic speaker who greatly inspired me as a young podiatrist.

   During his lectures, Dr. Root would say he did not want podiatrists to take his word as gospel and that he had more respect for those individuals who challenged his ideas than those who agreed with everything he said. Dr. Root encouraged scientific research that he hoped would lead to better treatments of the painful maladies that podiatrists saw on a daily basis in their busy practices. Dr. Root often stated during his lectures that he fully expected that the information in his textbooks would become outdated within a decade of their publication due to the influx of new scientific data that would lead to a different and more complete understanding of foot function.

Noting The Emergence Of Alternative Theories Of Foot Function In The Curriculum

   Today, over 30 years after the publication of Root, Orien and Weed’s most influential textbook, Normal and Abnormal Function of the Foot, there is now sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that many of Dr. Root’s ideas and theories need to be either modified or discarded in order to more accurately reflect recent research findings and newer theories of foot and lower extremity biomechanics.3


Dear Dr. Kirby,
Excellent article. I'm currently working with a different model of foot and ankle function with good success. This article confirms to me that what I've been seeing actually could be valid.
Are you aware of studies comparing foot deformities such as bunions, plantar fasciities, hammer toes, etc in developing countries versus our own? I'd appreciate any help pointing me in the right direction.
Thank you,
Rick Olderman

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