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Chiroland Begins - part 3

D.D. Palmer was the Founder of chiropractic, but son B.J., the Developer, was truly the architect of Chiroland. B.J. was born in What Cheer, Iowa in 1882. His mother died in 1885. After his mother’s death “he was at the mercy of five cruel stepmothers, each worse than the one before.” (1) Lerner, who interviewed B.J. Palmer, reported,

He was expelled from high school in his first term—in 1895. Thereafter, he went to work as a clerk in St. Onge's Department Store. In this capacity he did odd jobs as an errand boy. About three years later he had the occasion to meet Prof. Herbert L. Flint, the hypnotist who had come to lecture in Davenport and put on "vaudeville hypnotism shows.” About 1899, it appears that B.J. joined Prof. Flint's hypnotism troupe and left Davenport to go on the "stage" to do his part as a "hypnotic subject". (2)

Historian Russell Gibbons, who is kinder to chiropractic's turbulent past than some others, described B.J. as possibly "the last great entrepreneur of folk medicine in the United States."

Taking over his father's fledgling infirmary and school when only 25, he built within a decade the country's largest nonmedical institution, assembled the world's largest osteological museum, started the nation's second commercial broadcasting station, provided a forum for some of the greatest dissenters of the first quarter century, and established himself as the Prophet of Chiropractic, with the Iowa river town of Davenport as its mecca. (3)

The photo's title reads "'Analysis Class' conducted at The Palmer School of Chiropractic, Davenport, Iowa, by B.J. Palmer, the developer of Chiropractic." B.J. is standing on the stage.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Keating

Smith, author of At Your Own Risk (4), describes B.J. as “a commercial and public relations genius.” Faced with cruelty from a succession of stepmothers, often sleeping in boxes in alleys, under the kitchen sinks of hotels, or next to boilers on Mississippi River boats,

He worked for a time as floor scrubber, window washer, spittoon cleaner, and special-delivery boy for a department store, … getting three dollars per week as salary. He used to take out five cents a week for a bag of peanuts. This was his only luxury, for which he regularly got a beating. (5)

Smith’s source is B.J. himself, so the veracity of this report may be questionable. Folk has written that descriptions of abuse by his stepmothers as portrayed in his biography may have been exaggerated but appear based in truth. (6) She goes on to note:

People who knew him remember B.J. for his temper, impulsiveness, and cruelty. Dave Palmer [B.J.’s son] recalls his father viciously attacking trusted aides, and going upstairs to nap right after as if nothing had happened. In old age his behavior was sometimes quite bizarre, but even in the prime of life, B.J. flung his emotions and judgments around with enormous abandon. (7)

When a rival chiropractic school—the Universal Chiropractic College, also located in Davenport—closed in 1918, B.J. published its founder’s obituary in the Palmer newspaper as a hoax. He wrote that “Joy Manlove Loban”—Loban’s middle name was Maxwell—“… passed from the Chiropractic world. … The end came after a severe attack of talking sickness superimposed by an inflated ego.” (8)

Richard Schafer, chiropractor and author, himself the son of a chiropractor (9), reported an incident he observed when he lived with his parents across the street from the Palmer School of Chiropractic (PSC):

One day I saw B.J. approach and spit in the face of two students who were walking on the sidewalk. … I could not understand this and asked my dad what could cause such behavior. I was told that B.J. vehemently hated Jews and so acted on occasion—yet he would accept their tuition. It was common knowledge that B.J., like Charles Lindbergh, openly supported Hitler in the 1930s. (10)

Folk reports that many chiropractic schools enforced racial bans. “‘Negroes not accepted’ became an official Palmer statement in the 1920s, and the racial ban stayed in place until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.” (11) Moore describes an incident when, in 1944, B.J. reluctantly put the school’s no Blacks policy to the test when he put the admission of Black applicant Dorothy Clark to a vote of the student body. A majority bloc of southern students voted to leave school if the policy was reversed, and the ban remained in force for another decade. The threat of mass white exodus usually overcame any latent racial scruples, and most chiropractic schools, also proprietary, followed the Palmer policy, prohibiting black enrollment through the first half of the century. (12)

B.J. graduated from D.D.'s school in 1902, shortly before the elder Palmer absconded to Pasadena, leaving his 19 year old son with an $8,000 debt and a school to run. (13) When D.D. returned to Davenport in December 1903 or January 1904, he was probably surprised to find the school and clinic he had handed over to B.J. operating on a solid foundation. The younger Palmer had secured financing, placed advertisements for the school and infirmary in newspapers, and was successful in attracting new students. He had also hired a medical doctor to supervise the clinic to avoid charges of practicing medicine without a license. (14) By 1905 there were several dozen students. (15)

B.J. and D.D. shared the management of the Palmer School from 1904 to 1906. Despite acrimony between the two, they co-authored a textbook in 1906, The Science of Chiropractic: It’s Principles and Adjustments. (B.J. authored an additional 31 volumes, most of which were published by the PSC. (16) After his death in 1961, an abandoned elevator shaft was discovered in the Palmer home filled with B.J.’s manuscripts.)

B.J.’s vaudeville experience served him well in his role as champion of chiropractic. In 1914 he initiated an annual lyceum, held in the humid heat of Iowa’s August, which by 1921 lasted a full week and attracted 8,000 chiropractors from around the world. (17) Graduates from straight and mixer schools were welcome, as were spouses and the general public. Attendance was free. The lyceum was a kind of chiro-evangelist camp meeting where “B.J. combined hoopla, showmanship, and fervent oratory to inflame participants with a missionary zeal for his brand of straight chiropractic.” (18) Speakers included Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, author and philosopher Elbert Hubbard, violinist Jascha Heifetz, Bernarr Macfadden—the Jack LaLanne (19) of his day—and professional boxers James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. Napoleon Hill, motivational speaker and author of Think and Grow Rich, spoke at Palmer’s 1921 lyceum. (20) Hill spoke highly of B.J.:

Here I found the most inspiring institution of any kind—bar none!—in America. Here I found MY teacher. A man who not only teaches about things, but how to do things. A man who embodies in his life and work the principles of living and doing, the fine “Art of selling Yourself." (21)

The grand lyceum of 1921 included a four-mile long parade featuring huge papier-mâché vertebrae carried by marchers wearing signs that spelled out “Chiropractic Fountainhead.” An enormous picture of B.J. was prominently displayed in downtown Davenport. (22) No doubt, B.J. and his school were a boon to Iowa’s economy.

According to Folk, “B.J.’s public outreach was unencumbered by obeisance to propriety.” (23) B.J. is often quoted as having said,

I will sell Chiropractic, serve Chiropractic, and save Chiropractic if it will take me twenty lifetimes to do it. I will promote it within the law, without the law, in keeping with the law or against the law in order to get sick people well and keep the well from getting sick.

So fanatical about chiropractic was B.J. that he replaced the Gregorian calendar with his own, counting the years “A.C.”—After Chiropractic—from 1895. (24)

Sign in hallway at Life Chiropractic College

B.J. was president of the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa from 1902 until his death in 1961. The school, now the Palmer College of Chiropractic, is to this day referred to as The Fountain Head, a testimonial to the reverence with which chiropractors hold his legacy. (25) In addition to the school in Davenport, Iowa, two additional Palmer College campuses have been opened, one in California and another in Florida.

B.J.’s flamboyant style and dogged devotion to chiropractic dogma laid the groundwork for the recalcitrance present in today’s profession. Chiropractors, broadscope practitioners as well as the orthodox minority, hold tight to outmoded and unscientific notions. The flamboyant chiro-evangelistic style carried over from B.J.’s vaudeville days has lived on in the likes of Sid Williams (see this post) and other motivational speakers. Various forms of lyceums persist to this day in the form of chiropractic college homecomings, state and national chiropractic conventions, and practice-building programs. Many programs include motivational speakers whose proselytizing passion has provoked a new generation of chiropractors to sell themselves and their services in the name of Chiropractic. Chiroland lives on!


  1. Quoted in Smith RL. At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic. New York: Pocket Books; 1969, cited below. back

  2. Lerner C. The Lerner Report: A History of the Early Years of Chiropractic. New York: Foundation for Health Research, Inc., 1952, p. 265. back

  3. B.J. was probably 19 years old, not 25, when he acquired Old Dad Chiro's school and infirmary, as he was born in September 1882 and D.D. left Davenport in the spring of 1902. The radio station employed Ronald Reagan in his first broadcasting job. The quote is from Gibbons RW. The Evolution of Chiropractic: Medical and Social Protest in America. In: Modern Developments in the Principles and Practice of Chiropractic: based on a conference sponsored by the International Chiropractors Association, Anaheim, California, February 1979. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1980, p. 5.

  4. Smith RL. At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic. New York: Pocket Books; 1969. back

  5. Palmer B.J. The Bigness of the Fellow Within. Davenport: Chiropractic Fountain Head, 1949. Quoted in Smith RL, op. cit. back

  6. Folk H. The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing From the American Heartland. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press; 2017, p. 109. back

  7. Folk, p. 103. back

  8. Quoted in Folk, pp. 192-193. back

  9. Painter FM. In Memoriam--Richard C. Schafer, DC, PhD, FICC [Internet]. 2001. [Cited 2020 September 16]. Available from: back

  10. Wardwell, Walter I. Chiropractic: history and evolution of a new profession. St.. Louis: Mosby Year Book; 1992, p. 78. back

  11. Folk, p. 220. back

  12. Moore JS. Chiropractic in America: the History of a Medical Alternative. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1993, p. 103. back

  13. Keating JC Jr, Cleveland C III, Menke M. Chiropractic History: a Primer. Davenport, Iowa: Association for the History of Chiropractic; 2004. back

  14. Folk, pp. 110-111. back

  15. Keating JC. B.J. of Davenport: the early years of chiropractic. Davenport, Iowa: Association for the History of Chiropractic; 1997, p.52. back

  16. Keating, 1997, p. 277. back

  17. Moore, p. 57. back

  18. Ibid. back

  19. Jack LaLanne, whose website refers to him as “The Godfather Of Modern Fitness,” had trained as a chiropractor. back

  20. Folk, p. 241. back

  21. Wardwell, p. 71. back

  22. Moore, p. 58. back

  23. Folk, p. 194. back

  24. Folk, p. 155. back

  25. Senzon S. B.J. Palmer: An Integral Biography. Journal of Integral Theory Into Practice. 2010;5:118–36. back

About J. Michael Burke, D.C.

mbbi Bio Pic.jpg

During 45 years of diverse experience as a chiropractor, I have witnessed and documented many facets of the profession and the follies of many chiropractors, myself included. My involvement in various activities and endeavors has ranged from cracking necks and backs to developing a managed alternative healthcare network to investigating fraud.

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