Born: August 13, 1922
Died: September 25, 2002
Residence: San Jose, California
Education: California College of Chiropody
Known as: Father of Podiatry Biomechanics
If you travel about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento, deep into the wilderness among the giant California trees where you start seeing more trees than people, you will find Root Laboratory, Inc (Root Lab). Root Lab is a functional orthotic manufacturing company founded in 1974 by renowned chiropodist Dr. Merton L. Root III. In the world of podiatry, Dr. Root is commonly referred to as the “Father of Podiatric Biomechanics” – a revolutionary pioneer in biomechanics research and education. However, he was so much more to those who knew him. I went to visit Root Lab on May 2, 2018, and was welcomed by Jeff Root (Dr. Root’s son) as we sat down to discuss his father, the company, and the Root legacy.
Jeff described his father as a professional individual who was comfortable in social and group situations. He was highly intelligent and an avid reader, making him versed in many subjects. He expressed interest in history, science, and nature. Dr. Root was also a fan of classical, jazz, and Latin guitar music. Furthermore, he was a great listener; he had the innate ability to keep a conversation going. It was this characteristic that drew so many colleagues and patients to enjoy their interactions with him.
Dr. Root had a great sense of humor and was constantly surrounding himself with people who made him laugh. This included Drs. Robert (Bob) Hughes and William (Bill) Orien, two of his colleagues who would later become co-authors of his books. It was one of these books, Normal and Abnormal Function of the Foot — Clinical Biomechanics Volume II, that I stumbled across at the school library that left me wanting to know more about the main author. Who was Dr. Root? Where did his ideas come from? Why is there such little information about him on the internet?
This is his story.
I. Early Life
Dr. Merton Louis Root III, known as “Mert” to his friends and family, was born on August 13, 1922, in San Jose, California. He was the eldest of three siblings; he had a sister named Betty and a brother named Marion. He was named after his father, Merton Root II, who was a mail post carrier in San Jose.
His family’s last name origin comes from Europe specifically the United Kingdom spelled Rootae, later shortened to Root. The Rootae family was one of the first families to colonize Hartford, Connecticut, in the eastern United States, in the late 1600s. Mert was half Spanish from his mother, Anita M Root, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1895, moving to San Jose as a child. She would vividly recall experiencing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Anita was bilingual, fluent in both English and Spanish, and taught Mert some Spanish in his upbringing as well.
Dr. Root grew up in San Jose, working as a Western Union messenger boy in his teens while attending Pala High School. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 11th and 17th Airborne Divisions as a paratrooper, surveyor, and instructor. He was stationed at Camp Mackall in North Carolina during World War II and then stationed abroad in the Philippines and Japan post-war. He went on to study military intelligence at Washington & Lee University and was ultimately given an honorable discharge in February 1946. Upon his release from the U.S. Army, he returned home to attend San Jose State College (now San Jose State University), completing his undergraduate degree in 1948.
II. Chiropody School
After graduating from San Jose State College, Dr. Root married Roberta Bryant on June 19, 1948. He went on to attend the California College of Chiropody (now California School
of Podiatric Medicine) in San Francisco, graduating in 1952. It was here, during his time at California College of Chiropody, that a pivotal event would kickstart Dr. Root’s lifelong pursuit of foot biomechanics. As a student, he asked his professor to explain how the foot functioned. One question led to dozens, but his professor was unable to comprehensively answer his questions.
The professor finally replied, “Mert, you [would] have a better time playing Bridge (card game) than worrying about how the foot works.”
It was at this moment Dr. Root sparked interest to figure out the mechanics of the foot.
III. Settling Down
“Chiropodist Comes to Eastside”
Dr. Root returned San Jose after receiving his doctoral degree and opened his first chiropody office on 509 E. Santa Clara Street to serve his hometown community. After establishing his practice, Dr. Root expanded his practice into professional sports. He treated prominent athletes such as Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Ken Carpenter. He was also the team podiatrist for the San Francisco Giants baseball team.
Outside of chiropody, Dr. Root was a true outdoorsman. During the 1960s, Dr. Root and his friends, including fellow podiatrists Dr. Ted Deffinger and Dr. Robert Hughes, would go on annual fishing and camping trips near San Luis Obispo. The gang would let loose and de-stress by fishing, gambling, and partying. Dr. Hughes, besides being a podiatrist, was also an artist. He captured endless vacation memories through paintings, sketches, and cartoons. Dr. Root would later use these sketches during his lectures, much to his audience’s amusement. He often took his family to go fishing around the Delta, Mount Lassen, and Lake Nacimiento as well.
When Dr. Root wasn’t fishing or in the clinic, he strived to figure out podiatric biomechanics. He spent his spare time in his den, working on answering his own scientific questions. At the time, chiropodists were restricted in their surgical privileges, which prompted Dr. Root to focus on conservative methods to alleviate foot pain.
Root Lab began as an in-office lab with his partner, Dr. John Weed, in San Jose. The in-office lab was initially created for the production and distribution of functional orthoses to their own patients. At that time, Dr. Root was lecturing on biomechanics, foot orthotic therapy, and teaching others on his method to make functional orthoses. He truly believed in the power of a good orthotic. Jeff recalled his father saying:
“… A large percent of foot pathology can be treated with a good custom orthotic, the [remaining] other percent you needed true skill for casting and manipulating the foot with modifications, and a remaining few you could never truly fix them, you had to take them to surgery.”
When asked about his father’s early beginnings in the orthotic lab, Jeff replied, “My father basically created the orthotic industry but didn’t initially participate in it. Dr. Sheldon Langer was one of the first to take advantage of a potential new industry when he started Langer Acrylic Lab. Other pioneering labs included Podiatry Arts Lab (PAL), KLM and L.A. Orthotics Lab. My father and his staff trained, [and my father] lectured, and wrote newsletters for several of these labs.”
In 1966, Dr. Root became the director of the first ever Department of Orthopedics at California College of Chiropody. He would often teach his technique for casting orthosis in neutral suspension to students, residents, and other doctors. In addition, he would lecture on his theory of podiatric biomechanics in local and nation-wide conferences. He was also invited to be a featured guest speaker in the 1968 Functional Orthopedics Seminar.
IV. The Published Books
Dr. William Orien, who lived in southern California, initially approached Dr. Root and said: “Mert, you need to write a book.” In a time before the internet and email, they began to meet despite the distance and embarked on the laborious process of compiling data to complete their book. Jeff recalled the times he and his sister spent as test subjects to help his father. They spent many minutes, if not hours, on the kitchen table while his father manipulated their feet.
So, how did Dr. Root create his own notions of biomechanics? What was his stroke of brilliance? Unlike other famous stories, such as Isaac Newton formulating the laws of motion and gravity through the process of observing an apple fall from a tree, Dr. Root’s concepts came when he least expected it – when he was not thinking at all. Jeff remembers the story that his father always told about how his ideas started,
“He was in the shower, not thinking of anything. Then it hit him, a neutral position, then he rushed off to the clinic that day and used his own patients and tried to find this concept. He knew that there was this time and space when the foot was supinated, and later could be pronated. However, there had to be a short margin where the foot couldn’t be in both supinated and pronated. There had to be a neutral zone, almost like a concept of zero.”
In 1971, Drs. Merton Root, William P. Orien, John H. Weed, and Robert Hughes released their first book titled Biomechanical Examination of the Foot Volume 1. That same year, they published Neutral Position Casting Techniques. In 1974, Dr. Root founded Root Laboratory, Inc. as an official business in the same medical complex that he practiced. A few years later in 1977, the group published their last book together, Normal and Abnormal Function of the Foot Clinical Biomechanics Volume 2. Dr. Hughes was also the original artist in Biomechanical Examination of the Foot Volume 1, but the group used a special artist for the more complex visuals in Normal and Abnormal Function of the Foot Clinical Biomechanics Volume 2.
Although the group’s accomplishments were revolutionary, there was an associated backlash. Initially, Dr. Root was criticized for not providing evidence of his writing in a published scientific journal. Many of his colleagues were quick to conclude that his biomechanics did not work. Others argued there was too much variability in finding a STJ neutral position in each person’s foot type, resulting in mixed results. Eventually, new ideas arose that contradicted Dr. Root’s perspective; one of them was the argument of tissue stress that was not originally considered.
Dr. Root had limited resources in the 1960s and 1970s, so he used the appropriate words and techniques from his time to try and answer his questions despite these limitations. He was meticulous with terminology, using common orthopedic terms and applying them to understand foot mechanics and function. He knew his writing was not the final stage, but that was the best he could accomplish at that time. He was open to changing his methods and wording if necessary to evolve theories. Dr. Root devised and implemented an array of biomechanics methods, teachings, skills, terminology and they were not interdependent. They were all parts of a large structure that would be tested for authenticity and change. Even Dr. Root knew that there was still a lot of research and development needed for the field to grow.
V. Early Retirement
“Dr. Root retires from podiatry”
In the mid-1970s, Dr. Root was diagnosed with a devastating terminal disease. He was given one year to live and was forced to retire as he waited for his inevitable fate. As time began to pass, weeks turned into months and months turned into years. He lived past the one-year mark he was previously told, which ultimately resulted from a misdiagnosis. Instead of a terminal condition, Dr. Root had rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Dr. Root was eager to return to podiatry and though this was a much more positive outcome, the arthritis began to deform in his hands. He began conservative treatment with the traditional gold therapy and steroids. As the deformity progressed, Dr. Root pursued hand surgery on one hand, but it ultimately failed. He still tried going back to the clinic, but one day, he was reducing a callous and the scalpel flew out of his hand. He said it embarrassed him terribly and that incident made him decide it was time to permanently retire. Unfortunately, the RA affected his feet as well and he had to get pan metatarsal head resection bilaterally; the surgery was performed by Dr. Orien, his friend, and co-author.
On January 3, 1978, Dr. Root married his second spouse, Elaine Ellsworth. In 1982, Root Lab moved to Auburn, California along with Dr. Merton Root to oversee construction of the new facility. For the next year, his son, Jeff Root, ran the lab in San Jose while construction was being completed. In 1983, Root Lab officially moved to Auburn to continue manufacturing the traditional orthotics. After retiring, Dr. Root became a Gentleman Rancher, only attending to his family and vegetables.
In 1991, Dr. Root became a grandfather when Brian Root (Jeff’s son) was introduced into the world. That same year, Dr. Root was inducted into the 1991 Podiatry Management’s “Podiatric Hall of Fame”. On October 1998, Dr. Root received a testimonial dinner along with a distinguished medal of honor from the California College of Podiatric Medicine.
VI. The Last Memory
Shortly before passing away, Dr. Root became increasingly disabled. Normal routine tasks became difficult for him. He was in constant extreme pain and had spontaneous vertebral fractures. He passed away on September 25, 2002, from complications of pneumonia, about one month after his 80th birthday. His ashes were later scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
His son, Jeff Root, recalls the last memory of his father while resting in the hospital bed:
“I spent the last night of his life in his hospital room trying to keep him comfortable. I called my sister and my wife early in the morning and told them the end was near and that they needed to come back to the hospital soon. The three of us were with him when he passed. The moment he expired a tear came from the corner of his eye and ran down his cheek. I blotted it with a tissue. That was the last memory of my father. My father was at peace, no longer in pain and died with dignity”.
VII. Jeff Root
As the son of the great Merton Root III, Jeff worked up the ladder in his father’s business to be in the position he is in today. Jeff has been with Root Lab since 1977. He started off as a part-time lab technician making orthotics and was treated like any other employee. Jeff also explored several different career paths. He was a busboy, fountain boy, a cook, and a mobile home company employee. In 1984, Jeff was recruited by the fire service to be a volunteer firefighter. He became an EMT-D and progressed to an assistant fire chief. After 11 years, he left the fire service to devote his life to Root Lab and his family. After many years of developing a close relationship with Root Lab clients, he was inspired to pursue a permanent career in the family’s lab business. He eventually began to acquire an ownership interest and worked hard to earn it.
As the head of Root Lab, he is involved in all aspects of the company, including accounting, operations, and production. To this day, he still consults with his clients and employees about personal orthotic prescriptions and technical matters. In the current orthotics industry, Root Lab is faced with multiple challenges to maintain its relevance in the changing economic market. However, this hasn’t stopped Jeff Root from being passionate about his career. When asked what is his favorite part about working at the lab, he had this to say:
“I enjoy many aspects of my career. I enjoy biomechanics and my relationship with our clients probably more than anything else. The two often go hand in hand. It is rewarding helping practitioners improve their patient outcomes by helping them learn new or improve their skills, techniques, and knowledge. Practicing prescription foot orthotic therapy has a significant learning curve and biomechanics and foot orthotic therapy is always evolving. This makes things interesting”.
Jeff Root currently oversees Root Lab while raising his kids, Brian and Gary, with his wife Kathy Root.
VIII. Root Lab Inc. Today
What makes this lab different from others? Root Lab, now located in Meadow Vista, CA, is a midsized facility built with state-of-the-art CNC mill and CAD/CAM technology. Their quality assurance and attention to detail is a reflection of the company’s ideals, largely due to their key team members and clients being closely involved with the production of their orthotic. At their core, the company utilizes Dr. Root’s biomechanics, integrating his method for cast corrections and modifications. Some labs tend to use too much filler, resulting in a generic orthotic similar to a pre-fabricated device. The company believes that a true custom, functional orthosis should conform more closely to the patient’s foot. In addition, the company uses the lost art of marking their heel bisection. The bisection is important as a reference point when orienting the cast in the frontal plane.
What’s in store for the future of Root Lab, Inc.? Currently, their top priority is to develop an app enabling customers to scan their foot with a structured sensor and mobile device: One of Jeff’s son is a successful biomedical and software engineer. Although he is currently working in a different industry, Jeff plans to bring his son’s talents to the company. Jeff is already thinking of the future, looking at options that will enable Root Lab to continue to provide exceptional quality orthoses when he eventually retires.
IX. End Remarks
At the end of the interview, I asked Jeff if his father gave him any notable advice. Jeff replied,
“We spent a lot of time talking about life, career, and family. My father could not have accomplished what he did without sacrifice. One of the things he sacrificed was time with his family… my father told me that he admired the person that I had become and he said he respected how I was raising my two sons. That meant a lot to me. Although it wasn’t advice, he validated some of the choices that I had made in my life”.
Dr. Merton Louis Root III was a doctor, a teacher, an inventor, a father, a grandfather, and a pioneer. Although Dr. Root is gone, his words, teachings, and ideas live on. When asked what Dr. Root would have done if he didn’t become a podiatrist, Jeff suggested he might have become a diplomat. He enjoyed politics and admired former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Dr. Root was respected and admired for his contributions to podiatry. Dr. Merton L. Root was a man ahead of his time; he will be missed.
Interviewed by Roberto De Los Santos on May 2, 2018, at Root Labs Inc.
Images donated by Jeff Root, the Root family, and Root Labs Inc.
Edited by Kim Grace.
Published on June 10, 2018.