Chiropractic History: DD Palmer's Magical Kingdom

By: 
Paul DesOrmeaux
Originally published in BASIS
Volume: 
25
Number: 
1
April-June

Demand for alternative "healthcare" continues to grow faster than the American waistline; therefore, job prospects for alternative-medicine practitioners who can offer clients cures for every conceivable disease and condition, along with invented ones, such as restless text-messaging syndrome, are rather rosy. One of the more lucrative areas of alternative-care practice is chiropractic, in which not only do chiropractors make a decent living by manipulating patients, but they also get to call themselves "doctor," sort of like the television actor who pretends to be "Dr. House." Cool or what?

This disturbing trend in which the public is turning to alternative forms of questionable, unscientific, and Oprah-approved treatments for whatever ails them is growing by steroid-induced leaps and bounds, and it shows no signs of going the way of the Tonga ground skink. Why would the public part with its hard-earned money, and in some cases, intelligence, to dial up a chiropractor for undefined pain, myasthenia gravis, allergies, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibro-myalgia, PMS, autism, or a clogged toilet? Although there may be several reasons, one of the primary problems is the general public's lack of scientific knowledge, which is an uphill battle for stem-cell research, but a boon for nasal dilator strips.

On the other hand, although most people are not necessarily scientifically literate, they generally believe they are reasoning, rational creatures, despite evidence to the contrary, such as the popularity of Ann Coulter, queen of the logical fallacy, who writes that gaps in the fossil record is a reason public-school children should be taught creationism. Huh? Therefore, by studying the origins and "science" of chiropractic, it should be rather easy to arrive at a consensus as to the logic behind its claims, right?

(Unlike many of the oddball, questionable ancient cures that have been recently rescued from obscurity and discovered in tunic pockets by get-rich-quick woo-woo peddlers, chiropractic is a fairly modern alternative treatment. It's barely over one hundred years old, which to some, gives it more credibility than other scientifically challenged, ancient fixes promoted today, such as urine therapy and harmonic healing ("There are tones in your bones!").

It was in 1895 that DD Palmer inadvertently stumbled upon chiropractic as a way to create a bogus profession out of thin ether. Although born in Canada, Palmer spent much of his adult life in the United States, or more specifically, in the state of delusion. Before his infamous discovery, he was involved in various occupations that provided him with a rock-solid scientific knowledge, such as beekeeper and grocer.

In his spare time, Palmer avidly read up on the latest medical beliefs and theories of the time, such as the wisdom of bloodletting and the dangers of masturbation, which could result in insanity due to excessive enjoyment. During the mid-1880s, while settling in Davenport, Iowa, Palmer's obsessive interest in the healing sciences, along with his fascination with spiritualism and unicorns, led him to pursue a career in a well established, field: magnetic healing.

At the time, magnetic healers advanced the idea that human bodies were surrounded by invisible-like magnetic energy. By manipulating this field with his hands, a magnetic healer could cure most diseases, excluding general gullibility, while simultaneously drawing money out of a patient's pockets, which actually made DD quite wealthy???a money "magnet" so to speak. In his spare time, DD spent hours studying anatomy and physiology books and French postcards. Eventually, he felt he had developed a keen understanding of the workings of the human body, which, as will become evident, was on par with how fully most of us understand the physics behind string theory.

It wasn't until 1895, however, that DD Palmer created history by stumbling upon a cure for every human disorder and illness in the known universe: the art and artifice of spinal manipulation. Relying on the same magical thinking that kept his bank account well nourished by working as a magnetic-healer, he was convinced that there was a single source in the human body responsible for almost all diseases and disorders, suggesting he may have spent too many hours studying French postcards.

His "Eureka!" moment occurred in the bowels of his office building when he learned that a janitor working in his building was deaf. During a long "discussion" (or game of charades) with the janitor, Harvey Lillard, the custodian revealed that seventeen years earlier, when stooping down in a cramped area, his spine "popped" and immediately his hearing "stopped" (Seuss 16). Relying on his extensive experience as magnetic healer and grocer, DD deduced that the two events were likely linked. With no more knowledge about the complexity of the vertebral column than could be coaxed out of a clam, DD decided that Lillard's hearing problem might have resulted from misaligned vertebrae in the neck. Palmer eventually convinced Lillard to hop onto a table so that he could fiddle around with the janitor's cervical vertebrae. As the legend has been passed down, as soon as DD found and corrected a misaligned "bump" on Lillard's upper spinal column, the janitor could suddenly hear.

(The less romantic version, according to Lillard's daughter???and maybe the more accurate one???is that the founder of chiropractic whacked her father on the back with a book he was carrying in the hall after laughing heartily at the janitor's punch line ["Palmer? I didn't even know her!"]. Days later Lillard claimed his hearing had improved, which inspired Palmer to add manipulation to his magnetic-healing practice, along with a magazine rack.)

Shortly after the Lillard incident, Palmer claimed to have cured an undefined patient of an undefined heart problem, also through spinal manipulation. Now, with two totally unrelated disorders corrected by adjusting the vertebrae, the evidence was irrefutable. Palmer was convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that a crooked spine was the route of all evil, like I-15 to Las Vegas. The experiment was peer reviewed by Palmer himself. Although neither one of these extreme success stories has ever been duplicated, the seed of a new money-making occupation was planted. All that was needed was the spreading of manure.

Palmer theorized that by realigning the troublesome spine (or subluxation, as it was later known), he had reopened the "nerve pathway" that supplied healing energy to the rest of the body, such as the ear, which was truly miraculous since nerves from the inner ear feed directly to the brain; they do not detour through the cervical spine. However, if we start dabbling in logic now, we'll lose our train of thought. This novel "theory" was closely related to the pretzel logic behind magnetic healing, which was also based on the idea that blocked nerve pathways created friction, heat, and inflammation that could cause all kinds of pyrotechnic problems, such as a rash of people bursting into flames.

Heady with this newfound marketing potential, er, these success stories, DD was outright giddy with inventive theories. Our Man of Science was on a roll. He labeled the "stuff" that flowed through the spine "Innate Intelligence," a mixture of the soul, the spirit, and Vermont maple syrup. This magical, curative goop supposedly coursed through the peripheral nerves to the body's tissue and organs, acting as a natural-healing agent. An out-of-whack spine simply cut off the "I-I" supply, like a clogged-up educational system. Palmer concluded that 95% of diseases was caused by misaligned spines, while the other 13% was caused by global warming. Just like that, a new medical science had been created out of thin air bypassing the usual gold standards for approval, such as reason, tests, evidence, and the Good Housekeeping seal.

Without a catchy, medical-sounding name, however, a new, surefire cure can quickly fall on its coccyx. In the spirit of marketing and advertising, of which Palmer had a better grasp than anatomy, he needed a legitimate-sounding name for his invention. After hunkering down with his friend Reverend Samuel Weed, who was familiar with Greek root words, they arrived at the term "chiropractic," which loosely translated means "done with hands" or even more loosely translated means "hand job."

As Palmer spread the word about his new technique???through local directories, newspapers, and his own newsletters???the public trampled over logic and reason as they beat a path to his door. By simply realigning the spine in his special way, and without dispensing drugs, Palmer freed up the flow of Innate Intelligence vanquishing fevers, pains, infections, myopia, constipation, epilepsy, the flu, and unsightly ear hair.

This new-found fame gave a boost to his already humongous ego. Although the specialty of proctology was a few years away, Palmer was becoming quite adept at pulling strange medical ideas and beliefs out of his ass. He championed chiropractic as a combination of science, art, philosophy, and ATM machine, placing it in its proper place alongside other trusty curative techniques, such as reflexology, iridiology, and rain dances. He was able to correct "abnormalities of the intellect as well as those of the body." The self-degreed "Dr." Palmer had discovered the single cause and cure of 95% of all diseases, according to the science lab he had built in his head.

Not wanting to miss a profitable business opportunity, a couple of years later Palmer opened his first chiropractic school, "Palmer School of Chiropractic" (PSC, now "Palmer College of Chiropractic"). For a few hundred dollars, Palmer promised the graduates a "doctor" degree after a grueling and lengthy three to six months' education. His son BJ, whose store-clerk and circus experience proved invaluable for a medical career, was one of the first four "Doctor of Chiropractic" (DC) graduates. In Dr. Palmer's lifelong disdain for the medical profession, he bragged that a chiropractic education was more valuable for curing diseases than any other medical education, although his school's chiropractic degree was to medicine as intelligent design is to intelligence.

Often overlooked is the religious connection Palmer brought to chiropractic. To him, the spirit, body, and soul each played a part in his "cure." Later writings revealed that Palmer was an admirer of the powerful, autocratic, and wealthy Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, "anutter" organization that also promoted a drugless and baseless spiritual healing (although she was a morphine addict). Palmer believed that chiropractic, too, was a "religion," in which God, in his spare time, chose him as founder. He compared himself to Mrs. Eddy, Christ, and Martin Luther.

The turn of the century found Old Dad Chiro touring the country, drumming up support for chiropractic, and leaving son BJ behind to run the Davenport school, which is like putting politicians in charge of lobbying reform. During this time, unfortunately Old Dad Chiro had a couple run-in's with the law related to practicing medicine without a license. While spending a brief stint in jail in 1906, BJ plotted a hostile takeover of the school (which eventually became the Palmer College of Chiropractic). When Old Dad Chiro was eventually released, BJ convinced his father to sell him the school. After the sale and for the rest of their lives, father and son were no longer on speaking terms based on philosophical differences about the direction of chiropractic, and the son's bottled-up resentment about being saddled with the initials "BJ."

It's true that Old Dad Chiro is still considered the Father of Chiropractic, but it was BJ, a public-relations genius and developer of the "science" of chiropractic, who built an empire out of nothing???literally. Always the successful promoter, "Dr." BJ Palmer, also known as Colonel, as well as Galactic Ruler, even purchased radio stations during the 1920s to further advance chiropractic, including WOC ("Wonders of Chiropractic") in Davenport and later WHO ("With Hands Only") and WOO-WOO ("Woo-Woo") in Des Moines. To Col. BJ's credit he made no "bones" about his motivation. Once, when asked, "What are the principal functions of the spine?" BJ replied, "To support the head; to support the ribs; to support the chiropractor," and he was immediately offered a sitcom. Although "Dr." BJ also railed against the real medical profession his whole life, before his death in 1961, he turned to standard medicine when Innate Intelligence apparently couldn't cure his cancer.

There's no doubt that the Palmers' creative fiction about the connection between "nerve interference" and disease is pure hooey, yet it's been the cornerstone of chiropractic for over 110 years. There are a number of valid reasons for "pinched" spinal nerves, but a vertebral subluxation is about as credible as a karate kick in the spine from Bigfoot. Only a willing and gullible public, in conjunction with the placebo effect???not science???is responsible for the commercial success behind happy spines.

Although today's chiropractors come in different flavors ("traditional or objective straight," "mixer," "reform," and "less-filling"), most still fall under the category of alternative-medicine practitioners, many of whom endorse???in place of widely accepted health practices???other unproven methods, such as hair analysis, homeopathic remedies, colon irrigation, magnetic therapies, and Head-On.

A chiropractor may look like a doc, walk like a doc, and "quack" (oops) like a doc, but chiropractors aren't medical-school graduates. In fact, many practicing chiropractors never graduated from college. It's like the difference between real turkey and tofurkey. Only recently, and probably because of the lack of meaningful political lobbying reform, have some accreditation boards recognized the "doctor" of chiropractic degree as valid, along the lines of a "Dr." of Pepper degree. Although some chiropractor schools are supposedly trying to raise their standards ("Sing along with me class: 'and the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone???/ With the hip bone connected to the back bone ???'"), most graduates earn their "doctor of chiropractic" degree in four years, while it takes "doctors of medicine" at least eleven to fifteen years of keg parties.

Why does the public give so much credence to this mostly pseudoscientific hogwash? Ignorance of its history? A lack of scientific knowledge? Marketing? Mad cow disease? It's generally agreed upon by most medical organizations that there are only two valid reasons to visit a chiropractor: 1) mild back and neck pain and minor musculoskeletal issues (although most physical therapists would be just as effective) and 2) a healthy disregard for science, facts, critical thinking, and history!

If you insist on visiting a chiropractor, however, do some research beforehand: First ask the "doctor" to sing a few bars of "Dry Bones" ("With the toe bone connected to the foot bone / and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone???"). If he blows the lyrics, hobble out the door, head for home, plop down in front of the television, and keep watching. It's only a matter of time before a much more reliable and affordable alternative shows up on your screen: Spine-On.

Humorist Paul DesOrmeaux teaches writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Monroe Community College. His goal is to introduce skepticism to a broader audience by combining reason and science with humor/satire to expose myths, pseudoscience, fraudulent claims, and nonsensical ideas.