There was a young man from Woo
Whose ideas came out of the blue
He thought he was clever
But reasoned he never
That silly young man from Woo
When I matriculated at Western States Chiropractic College in the fall of 1976 I was oblivious to most of the flaws of the chiropractic profession I describe on this site. More accurately, I was willfully ignorant and believed I could see the emperor’s new clothes. I leaped blindly into the chiropractic profession, willing to be convinced by unbelievable claims, outlandish hypotheses, and ubiquitous anecdotes. At my chiropractic college admissions interview I told the dean I was interested in learning about the sciatic nerve and the nutritional content of spinach. He had only one question: How was I going to pay the tuition?
Outside the anatomy lab, Western States Chiropractic College, Winter 1977. I am on the right.
Contributing to my naïveté was my poor grounding in science. I entered kindergarten in the year of Sputnik, 1957, a time at which science and math were becoming hugely important topics in school, covered by increasingly detailed and specialized courses as one progressed through the elementary and high school years. Science class was a part of every elementary and middle school grade. In high school there were separate classes for physics, biology, chemistry, and earth science, none of which held my interest for very long. Perhaps if my teachers had taught me to ask questions and look at underlying assumptions, if I had been exposed to the fundamental precepts of scientific inquiry, I would have been more attentive, but I don’t remember ever having the scientific method explained. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Science to me — and, as it turns out, to many people — was whatever was claimed to be scientific or had some indefinable aura of legitimacy, usually due to the authority attributed to the person at its source.
Science classes were a requirement in college, but I did not want a career that required such disciplined study. In truth I had no career plans outside of a fuzzy interest in humanistic psychology. By the time I graduated in 1974, woo-woo was in the air. Only a small step was necessary to take me from encounter groups, Primal Scream, I’m OK You’re OK, and Gestalt Therapy to the Swami Satchidananda ashram in San Francisco where I took classes in yoga and herbal medicine. In Berkeley I received Jin Shin Jyutsu treatments—something akin to acupressure or Shiatsu—during which I floated out of my body and went window shopping on Shattuck Avenue. Good stuff!
My girlfriend was very excited about a workshop she had taken with Dr. Christopher and urged me to attend it. John Raymond Christopher was an herbalist who, according to a Wikipedia article (1), had been ”born with advanced rheumatoid arthritis, … endured excruciating pain as a child, and sometimes walked with a cane or used a wheelchair. He also developed hardening of the arteries, and a nearly fatal case of croup.” He was not expected to live to the age of 30. Another biography (2) contains an even more dubious account of his remarkable recoveries from various ailments and injuries. I had just spent a month at home recovering from pancreatitis. I went to see Dr. Michael Gerber, a medical doctor who had studied with Dr. Christopher. Dr. Gerber prescribed juice fasts, dietary restrictions, and enemas. I spent the majority of each day tapping powdered herbs into gelatin capsules and preparing homemade granola using expensive oils purchased in local health food stores. I felt better for a time, but the regimen seemed to accelerate my genetic predilection to balding.
Dr. Gerber was obsessed with the idea that the cardinal sign of health was having a bowel movement as soon as one arose in the morning, but my lower intestine was not convinced, so he kept increasing the dose of Dr. Christopher’s Lower Bowel Formula, an herbal combination, so I would experience a sort of wellness nirvana. The first ingredient in the Lower Bowel Formula is cascara sagrada bark (3), a laxative, which caused inflammation of the lining of my colon. (4) Dr. Gerber was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. I finally lost my faith in him when he asked me, “Do you think you still have pancreatitis?” (5)
I lived in Berkeley and San Francisco for only a short time, about two years, between my college years in Santa Cruz and relocating to Portland for chiropractic school, but during that time I saw quite a few health practitioners, both alternative and traditional. The first doctor I saw for my pancreatitis was William Brostoff, MD whose most compelling credential was that he treated members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead bands. When I later started receiving chiropractic treatments, Dr. Brostoff warned me not to let the chiropractor treat me for pancreatitis, a warning I neither understood nor heeded.
I received one acupuncture treatment from a man who was not a licensed acupuncturist. (Acupuncturists were not licensed in California until 1976.) I saw him in the home of my friend Saul who later referred me to Dr. Rice, the first chiropractor I ever saw. Saul had put his hands on my back and shoulders, bluntly stating, “You’re really tight. You need to see Dr. Rice.” The acupuncturist also performed an iridology reading. From the myriad of problems he had seen in my eyes, his diagnosis sounded like a death sentence. As I rode the Muni bus home after the needling treatment I felt like I was on an acid trip, especially when I saw a billboard of “ORANGES ON FIRE” (6) and thought I was hallucinating.
My visits with Landon Rice, DC were key to my choice of a profession. As I approached the green stucco building on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland for the first time, I had a premonition that I would someday be a chiropractor. A visit with Dr. Rice entailed a ride on BART from the South Mission District in San Francisco through the tube underneath San Francisco Bay to downtown Oakland, and then a short and pleasant walk along Lake Merritt to his office. The building also housed an optometrist and a beauty parlor. Despite the intuition about my future profession, I knew almost nothing about chiropractic. I had neither fear nor expectation of having my back and neck cracked. As it turned out, Dr. Rice was not a cracking, popping type of chiropractor. I would soon be a captive audience for his opinions about the chiropractic profession.
Dr. Rice’s office could have been a museum exhibit of a chiropractic office from the 1940s. The waiting room floor was comprised of 15 inch squares of black linoleum in which pastel speckles of pink, blue, green, and yellow were embedded. The walls were painted hospital green. Several black Naugahyde chairs with metal arms and legs were lined up against the walls of the small waiting room. I had my choice because I was the only patient in the room. Next to an inner door was a doorbell. A sign on the wall directed me to press the buzzer. Soon I heard the sound of footsteps approaching, the door opened, and there stood Dr. Rice. He looked like a doctor in some black and white movie from the 1940s. He was tall and lean with silver-gray hair. He wore a short-sleeved white clinic jacket with a clerical collar that went across the front of his neck and buttoned around the side toward his shoulder, the kind worn by actor Vince Edwards who portrayed Dr. Ben Casey in the 1960s TV series. He said, in a pleasant, even tone, “Have a seat. I’ll be with you soon.” He closed the door. I heard his footsteps recede, and I dimly heard him talking, probably to the patient he was currently treating. Five or 10 minutes passed before Dr. Rice reappeared and invited me in. The previous patient had apparently departed through another door.
I was led down a hallway along a row of dressing rooms—small units with green doors and walls that neither reached the ceiling nor the floor. But I wasn’t asked to disrobe in one. Instead we proceeded further down the hall. Small rooms were filled with therapy machines—ultrasound, galvanic stimulation, diathermy, as I learned later—and charts, some portraying the human spine with vertebral misalignments and nerve interference while others showed figures standing in various postures, both good and bad. I had the impression that all of the unused equipment — charts, treatment tables, and other paraphernalia stashed in these little rooms — had been gathering dust for a long time.
The hall opened into a larger space in the back of the office. A treatment table was poised in the center of this room. It too was an artifact of chiropractic antiquity. The brown Naugahyde table was about three feet high, had a large hump over which I would soon be situating my prone torso, and a slot on which I would place my face so my neck and head would not be turned to the side.
Dr. Rice invited me to remove the clothing from my upper body and mount the table. As I said, I had few expectations as I had never been treated by a chiropractor, so I was not concerned when he did not ask me why I was there or if I had any specific complaints I wanted treated. He asked none of the usual medical questions about my health status, the medications I might have been taking, or my tobacco and alcohol use. He made no inquiries about my past medical history. He evidently had no concerns about the time I sprained my lower back in college, the surgery to correct a deviated nasal septum at age 17, or the status of my recovering pancreatic illness.
Once I was positioned on the table, Dr. Rice put his warm, dry hands on my back and began kneading my muscles. Soon he began to probe more deeply. His ministrations were accompanied by a narrative describing what he was feeling: muscle tightness in various spots on my neck and back. Although uncomfortable, I tried to relax, not resisting the pressure of his fingertips. This was not nearly as painful as other manual therapies I had received such as Structural Integration which, like Rolfing, was an excruciating ordeal. This wasn’t too bad.
After 15 or 20 minutes Dr. Rice told me I could get up and get dressed. I put my shirt back on and approached Dr. Rice who was sitting at a small table on one side of the room near the back door. “That will be $8,” he said. I pulled the cash out of my wallet and handed it to him. He was silent as he made an entry in his ledger. “Should I come back?” I asked. “If you want to.” I scheduled an appointment for the following week.
One night I awoke with severe abdominal pain. Fearing my pancreatitis had returned, I called Dr. Rice. Undaunted by my 4 am phone call, he advised me to immediately take an enema. I did not have the proper equipment, so I borrowed my roommate’s douche bag. Buying her a new one the next day was the least of my worries. The next time I saw Dr. Rice he referred me for colonic irrigations. I did not know there were practitioners of this healing art. The middle-aged woman whose office I visited instructed me to remove all my clothing and lie on her workbench, a combination massage table and sink. She did not offer me a gown or any other means of preserving my modesty. Nearby was something that looked like a glass coffee percolator large enough to serve an entire banquet. It was filled with water. Two or three hoses were attached to it. I knew where one of those hoses was going. As the warm water filled my lower intestine I was surprised to discover that the pressure caused an erection. This clearly was not the result of sexual excitement, but the therapist must have thought I was a pervert. Or perhaps this was a regular occurrence in her line of work. She pretended not to notice.
Continuing to see Dr. Rice, over the course of several more treatments I revealed my interest in becoming a healthcare practitioner of some sort or other. My predilection leaned toward naturopathy. I was learning more about iridology, the “science” of diagnosis by examining the iris, and I wanted to treat people using herbs and diet. But Dr. Rice lobbied me to become a chiropractor. Naturopaths, he told me, were only licensed in seven states (at that time), whereas all 50 states licensed chiropractors. And, he said, once I had a chiropractic license I could practice in whatever manner I chose. He scoffed at chiropractors who only adjusted the atlas, the topmost vertebra in the neck, which he thought was unnecessarily restrictive. During further treatments he shared other biases and insights into the profession with me.
I later found out that chiropractors cannot do anything they want. Each state board defines the scope of practice for its state, which varies from the extremely broad scope of Oregon — where chiropractors can treat proctologic conditions, deliver babies, practice gynecology using natural treatments, and perform minor surgery—to “straight” states that limit chiropractors to the detection and treatment of spinal subluxations. (7)
But what really convinced me to become a chiropractor was that I would be required to jump over fewer hurdles to matriculate at a chiropractic college compared to the prerequisites for entering naturopathic school. At that time there was only one educational institution in the US that offered a four-year naturopathic degree recognized in the few states where naturopaths could practice. The prerequisites for entering the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon were similar to the entrance requirements for medical school — lots of chemistry and biology classes in addition to physics and mathematics far beyond the high school classes I had managed to pass. Furthermore, the first two years of the naturopathic curriculum, which focused on the basic sciences of anatomy, physiology, histology, pathology, microbiology, and numerous other -ologies, had to be taken at a college in Lawrence, Kansas before one could take clinically oriented classes and training in the teaching clinic in Portland. Conversely, the only chiropractic school prerequisite I lacked was two semesters of chemistry, so I enrolled at City College of San Francisco.
Aside from my visits to Dr. Rice I knew almost nothing about chiropractic, and the little I did know did not inform my decision to follow this calling. My mother once went to a doctor for a foot problem. She was directed to a dressing room, told to remove all her clothing and put on a gown. This seemed very odd to her, but she obediently followed the instructions. She was then ushered into an examination room where she complained to the doctor of her foot problem. The doctor told her, “Oh, you want a chiropodist. I am a chiropractor." (8) When I foolishly injured my low back in college at UC Santa Cruz by helping lift the front end of a student’s Rambler, the MD at the student health center prescribed Valium, heat, and rest; chiropractic treatment was not a consideration. Aside from a few friends who had also seen Dr. Rice, I did not know anyone who had ever been to a chiropractor.
I should have known better after reading Ralph Lee Smith’s book, At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic. (9) This was one of the few books about chiropractic, perhaps the only one, in the San Francisco Public Library at that time. I read it on the bus going to and from chemistry classes. Written in 1969, the book reads like a catalog of injuries and deaths caused by chiropractors. Smith documented unmitigated lies by chiropractors, chiropractic institutions and professional associations, fraudulent practices, and outright quackery. He submitted himself to treatments from interns at chiropractic college teaching clinics, and he attended practice management courses where chiropractors were taught how to cajole people into becoming patients, continuing to receive treatments even after their original complaints had resolved, and referring their friends and relatives. The book begins with the story of Linda Epping, an eight-year-old girl with cancer of the left eye. Her parents took her to a Los Angeles chiropractor, Marvin Phillips, DC who convinced them that chiropractic treatments would cure their daughter. By the time it became obvious the child was not improving, it was too late for medical interventions to save her. Phillips was charged with second-degree murder, eventually convicted, and served prison time. (The story was reported in a November 1963 issue of Life Magazine. (10) )
Smith investigated chiropractic schools, documenting substandard admissions requirements, faculty members whose credentials could not be confirmed (11), and an absence of institutional accreditation. (Chiropractic education has made significant progress since Smith wrote his book.) Posing as a patient at the 600 bed Spears Chiropractic Sanitarium and Hospital in Denver, Smith noted that many people whose testimonials had been published by the hospital as having been helped or cured had actually died, some before their testimonials were even published.
But At Your Own Risk did not deter me from a chiropractic career. Why did the revelations in this book not cause me to run in the opposite direction? The simple explanation is that I dismissed them outright. Confirmation bias, the tendency to uncritically accept information that supports and strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs, also makes us reject knowledge and opinions contrary to our convictions. One way I rationalized my decision was by telling myself the book was outdated, having been published a whole six years previously. Instead of vetting the information, I concluded that Smith must be wrong. Why would the chiropractic profession be licensed and regulated if chiropractors were liars and their treatments killed people? How could chiropractic colleges get accredited and grant doctorate degrees if chiropractic practice amounted to quackery? Why would the federal government oversee a student loan program, one which would fund almost the entire cost of my professional education, if the profession was illegitimate? Moreover, why would people go to chiropractors if their primary form of treatment, spinal manipulation, was worthless? Interestingly, these same considerations contribute to chiropractic’s perceived credibility today.
Chiropractic has gained an aura of respect in the 21st century, albeit one that is largely undeserved. Shortly before I left California for chiropractic college in Portland I visited my former faculty advisor at UC Santa Cruz. He frowned when I told him of my plans — I had been headed toward graduate school in cultural anthropology before I changed directions — and he asked if there wasn’t something else, meaning something more respectable, I might do. Decades later, at a class reunion, he seemed impressed by my career choice. His opinion was that alternative medicine treatments, chiropractic included, were very helpful in many cases. I have heard similar opinions and have been greeted with respect by many people when introducing myself as a chiropractor. Although chiropractic has changed some since the day in 1976 when I packed all my belongings into a cardboard box and drove to Oregon, people’s attitudes toward it have changed favorably to a much greater degree than deserved.
John Christopher (herbalist) [Internet]. [cited 2020 May 6]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Christopher_(herbalist). back
About Dr. Christopher [Internet]. [cited 2020 May 6]. Available from: https://drchristophersherbs.com/pages/about-dr-christopher. back
Dr. Christopher’s Fen LB Formula (Bulk) [Internet]. [cited 2020 May 7]. Available from: https://drchristophersherbs.com/products/fen-lb-formula-bulk?_pos=3&_sid=fea207a6c&_ss=r. back
WebMD reports that cascara sagrada is “possibly safe” when taken by mouth for less than one week, but it is “possibly unsafe” when used longer. Side effects of long-term use can include dehydration, low levels of potassium, sodium, chloride, and other electrolytes as well as heart problems and muscle weakness. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the National Library of Medicine, warns that cascara can cause “adverse events including clinically apparent liver injury when used in high doses for longer than recommended periods.” The condition is rare and is self-limited when the laxative is withdrawn, but “severe cases with acute liver failure” and other serious consequences have been described. back
Dr. Gerber’s California medical license was revoked in 1984 after the Board concluded that a 56 year old woman with treatable cancer had died due to the doctor’s neglect while he treated her with herbs, enzymes, coffee enemas, and chelation therapy. He currently practices homeopathic medicine in Nevada. back
Shortly after I graduated from chiropractic school I attended an orientation for new doctors interested in practicing in Washington state, which had a narrow scope at that time. One of the presenting chiropractors stated that the reason they maintained this straight scope was because they wanted patients to know that when they got better it was because of the chiropractic adjustment, not because they ate seaweed for their thyroid gland. back
Chiropodists are now called podiatrists. Could they have changed the name of their profession because of this type of mix-up? back
Smith RL. At your own risk: the case against chiropractic. New York: Pocket Books; 1969. back
Crackdown on Quackery. Life, 1963 Nov 1;55(18):72B – 83. back
In 1979, the student body president of Western States Chiropractic College discovered that the college’s president, Richard Timmins, did not have a Doctor of Education degree from Cornell University, as he had claimed. Rather, his degree was from Cornell College in Iowa. He disappeared immediately thereafter. back