"A science that hesitates to forget its founders is lost."
There would be no chiropractic today without Daniel David Palmer (1845 - 1913) and his son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer (1882 - 1961), the “Founder” and “Developer” of chiropractic, respectively. The history of these two characters is, in large part, the history of chiropractic. Yet, chiropractors today would do well to heed the words of Alfred North Whitehead who said, “A science that hesitates to forget its founders is lost.” (1) I wouldn't go so far as to say that Einstein, who has been called the Father of Modern Physics, should be forgotten, but the chiropractic profession is dragged down by the baggage it carries with it. Chiropractic is mired in the past, one that was shaped by D.D. Palmer and more so by B.J. Palmer. An understanding of how chiropractic started and developed sheds much light on its current condition. This is not intended as an exhaustive history of chiropractic. I wish merely to highlight certain events and attributes which shaped the current state of the profession.
D.D. Palmer, also called D.D., and who referred to himself as Old Dad Chiro, was born in the Canadian province of Ontario. Prior to his discovery of the “science, art, and philosophy of chiropractic,” he was best known as a magnetic healer by those who idolize him and as a fishmonger by those who disparage him. The latter title is probably undeserved. He did not engage in the mucky and malodorous occupation implied by the term. Historical accounts describe D.D.’s avocation as raising and selling goldfish, an enterprise he continued long after his legendary discovery. (2)
Left: D.D. Palmer's mother and sisters, circa 1880s.
Right: D.D. Palmer, his father and brothers;
D.D. is seated on the left next to his father.
A glance at chiropractic history gives the impression that chiropractic was born full-grown on September 18, 1895, the day D.D. persuaded Harvey Lillard to allow him to adjust his spine. Lillard, an African-American janitor in the building where D.D. practiced magnetic healing, reportedly “had been so deaf for 17 years that he could not hear the racket of a wagon on the street or the ticking of a watch.” In Palmer’s own words:
I made inquiry as to the cause of his deafness and was informed that when he was exerting himself in a cramped, stooping position, he felt something give way in his back and immediately became deaf. An examination showed a vertebra racked from its normal position. I reasoned that if that vertebra was replaced, the man’s hearing should be restored. With this object in view, a half-hour’s talk persuaded Mr. Lillard to allow me to replace it. I racked it into position by using the spinous process as a lever and soon the man could hear as before. (3)
As other authors have pointed out, D.D. did not reveal how he managed to talk with the deaf man so as to convince him that he should allow D.D. to experiment upon him. History does not inform us that D.D. and Lillard were conversant in American Sign Language.
Valdeenia Simons, Lillard’s daughter, told a somewhat different version of the tale. She claimed her father and a friend were telling funny stories near the open doorway of D.D.’s office. D.D., who was inside reading a book, overheard the loud conversation and joined the men in the hall. Laughing out loud at the story’s climax, he slapped Lillard on the back with his book. Several days later, Lillard commented to Palmer that he thought he could hear a bit better following the back slapping incident. (Could the blow to Lillard's back have dislodged a plug of earwax, thus improving the deaf man's hearing?) Palmer allegedly commented, “We’ll try to do something about that.” Shortly, he began working with Lillard to restore his hearing. (4)
Encouraged by the success of this single adjustment (some sources say two or three treatments were necessary), D.D. next encountered a patient with heart disease. Sure enough,
I examined the spine and found a displaced vertebra pressing against the nerves which innervate the heart. I adjusted the vertebra and gave immediate relief—nothing “accidental” or “crude” about this. (5)
From these two cases D.D. was able to deduce the principles of chiropractic.
… I began to reason if two diseases, so dissimilar as deafness and heart trouble, came from impingement, a pressure on nerves, were not other disease [sic] due to a similar cause? Thus the science (knowledge) and art (adjusting) of Chiropractic were formed at that time. (6)
Next, he “began a systematic investigation for the cause of all diseases” and was “amply rewarded.”
I founded Chiropractic on Osteology, Neurology and Functions—bones, nerves and the manifestations of impulses. I originated the art of adjusting vertebrae and the knowledge of every principle which is included in the construction of the science of Chiropractic. (7)
Palmer’s new healing art was not delivered whole to the world. Rather, it probably existed in some form prior to September 18, 1895, was consonant with other alternative medical theories of the time (8), and evolved over the remainder of Palmer’s life. D.D. initially conceived chiropractic as a healing art wherein both internal organs as well as musculoskeletal structures were manually manipulated. (9) The above quotes from D.D.’s 1910 textbook most likely represent his view of the Lillard incident and subsequent events after 15 years of teaching, practicing, and rethinking the theory.
D.D. founded the Palmer School of Magnetic Cure in Davenport, Iowa in 1896. (10) The name was later changed to the Palmer School of Chiropractic (PSC) and, after B.J.’s death, to the Palmer College of Chiropractic. The elder Palmer left Davenport in 1902 following a quarrel with a student named H.H. Reiring. Cyrus Lerner, an attorney hired by chiropractors in New York to help them obtain a licensing law in that state, produced a report on the history of the chiropractic profession in the early 1950s. (11) Lerner believed Reiring was in cahoots with Dr. Henry Matthey of the Scott County, Iowa Medical Society who campaigned against drugless healing. Matthey wrote a malicious diatribe against D.D. Palmer, which appears in part 2 of Chiroland Begins. Reiring enrolled in Palmer’s school in March 1900, paying the required $500 tuition for the course of instruction. Lerner claimed Reiring was “out to poison the minds of the other students against Palmer, … was without doubt trained to try and wreck the school, … and was aiming to discredit Palmer and the science of Chiropractic.” Reiring accused Palmer of being “ignorant” and a “fraud”, a “quack of the most dangerous character.” He “had never known of a single cure performed by Palmer.” In his opinion, “Chiropractic was not a science at all.” (12)
Reiring consulted a lawyer and was told he could get his money back. When he told the other students of his plan, D.D. confronted him. Enraged, he ordered Reiring to leave the school, but Reiring refused to leave unless Palmer refunded his full tuition. D.D. threatened to call the police, and when Reiring remained resolute, D.D. did indeed do so. Reiring was incarcerated, but Palmer, inexplicably, failed to file charges, so Reiring was released. He then sued Palmer for $5,000 for false arrest and also for defrauding him of the $500 tuition. Lerner tells us that Palmer “did only what you and I would have done in those circumstances.” He fled the court’s jurisdiction and headed to Pasadena, California.
Holly Folk, in The Religion of Chiropractic, speculated on the reasons D.D. departed Davenport. (13) First was the 1902 Illinois Supreme Court decision convicting Joseph P. Gordon for practicing medicine without a license, the news of which appeared in The New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association as well as in the Iowa newspapers. (14) D.D. may have viewed the outcome as a grim omen in light of his recent legal predicament. Perhaps the hostilities with Matthey, described in part 2 of Chiroland Begins) contributed as well. Palmer himself claimed he had to go to California to help his old friend and former student, Thomas Storey, with an unspecified personal emergency. Before leaving he transferred the school and its assets to his son B.J. to get them out of Reiring’s reach. (15) D.D.’s opponents contended
he departed like a thief in the night, taking all the furniture and supplies from the school and clinic with him. Staff arrived at work the next morning to find the patients huddled on the floor; D.D. had stolen their bedding! (16)
What did Palmer do with this booty? It’s unlikely he took it on the train to California. Perhaps he sold it for some traveling cash.
A N Whitehead addresses the British Association in 1916 [Internet]. [cited 2020 Sep 7]. Available from: https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/BA_1916_1/ back
Nonetheless, a comment to the blog, “D.D.’s Wives” on the Palmer College library’s website (https://blogs.palmer.edu/library/2016/09/01/d-d-s-wives/) states that D.D. offered 50 varieties of fresh lake fish for eating at the grocery store he ran with his wife Louvenia, B.J.’s mother, in the early 1880s. back
Palmer D.D. Text-Book of the Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic. Portland, Oregon: Portland Printing House Company; 1910, p. 18. back
Vernon L. Chiropractic’s Continued Legacy of Racism and its Affect on Minority Population Utilization. J Philosophy, Principles & Practice of Chiropractic. 2016 Dec 19. back
Palmer, p. 18. back
Ibid., p. 19. back
see Folk H. The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press; 2017 and Moore JS. Chiropractic in America: The History of a Medical Alternative. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1993. back
Folk, p. 86. back
Keating JC Jr, Cleveland C III, Menke M. Chiropractic History: a Primer. Davenport, Iowa: Association for the History of Chiropractic; 2004. back
Lerner C. The Lerner report: a history of the early years of chiropractic. New York: Foundation for Health Research, Inc., 1952. back
Lerner, pp. 257-258. Lerner’s source may be the court documents filed in this case. He stated that Reiring’s opinions “can be found in the pleadings in the case of ‘Reiring versus Palmer.’” However, Lerner did not cite specific references in his report. back
Folk, pp. 106-107. back
Folk does not specifically state that Gordon was a chiropractor, referring to him as a "vertebral vitalist." In 1901 he was charged with practicing medicine without a license, won at both the district and appellate levels, but was convicted by the Illinois Supreme Court.. back
Folk, p. 264. back
Folk, p. 107. back