Chiropractic: Science or Swindle?

Ralph Lee Smith
May 1, 1965

THIS 66-year-old lady had suffered from diabetes for 21 years . . . She had taken insulin over a period of time and had learned to live with the condition. After several adjustments she became aware that she no longer needed insulin,  and is happy to report that a backache pain between her shoulders that once kept her miserable is now no longer a problem.

The excerpt above appeared in a recent newspaper advertisement of a Midwestern chiropractor, offering his services to the public. Today chiropractors may be treating as many as three million people a year for ailments ranging from headaches to cancer, by a method dreamed up 70 years ago by an Iowa grocer. Chiropractic is perhaps the strangest of today’s medical wonderlands.

The 1960 census listed 14,360 chiropractors in the United States but the American Chiropractic Association claims there are 25,000 and a public relations firm for the chiropractors says there are 35,000. All states but Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Louisiana license chiropractors in an attempt to limit their practice. As a result of this legislative recognition, many people, including those who are well-informed, vaguely believe that a chiropractor is a genuine medical doctor-a spinal specialist whose training differs somewhat from, but is not significantly inferior to, that of medical specialists. For example, a recent issue of Lile carried a feature article on a criminal prosecution. The headline read “The Doctor Who Was Convicted of Murder.” You had to get well into the small print of the story before you learned that the “doctor” was a chiropractor. Too few people realize that chiropractors reject the findings of modern medicine and the allied sciences about the cause and treatment of disease because these findings conflict with the ideas of one Daniel David Palmer.

Palmer was a grocer and fish-peddler of Davenport, Iowa, who dabbled in animal magnetism, a popular form of quackery in 19th century America. Practitioners of animal magnetism alleged to be a unique group of human beings whose “personal magnetism” was so great that it gave them the power to cure disease. Palmer rented an office and practiced magnetic healing.

In 1895, he announced a great “discovery.” His son, B.J., described it to a Wisconsin court in 1910 when testifying in a case involving charges of illegal practice of medicine by a chiropractor. In his dad’s office building, said B.J., there was a janitor named Harvey Lillard who had been deaf for 17 years. One day Harvey dropped by to discuss his problem with healer Palmer.

Asked how his deafness had occurred, Lillard (who throughout the interview seemed to have no trouble hearing Palmer’s questions) replied, “I was in a stooped, cramped position, and while in that position I felt something pop and heard it crack in my back.” He went deaf within two minutes, he said, and hadn’t been able to hear a thing since. Palmer laid the deaf man down on a cot, looked him over, and noticed a “great subluxation (misalignment) on the back,” allegedly causing a visible lump in Harvey’s back.

“Father reasoned out the fundamental thought of this thing,” B.J. told the court, “which was that if something went wrong in that back and caused deafness, the reduction of that subluxation should cure it.”

Palmer gave Harvey’s subluxation a well-aimed whack, and, according to B.J.’s testimony, the “bump was adjusted, was reduced, [and) within 10 minutes Harvey had his hearing and has had it ever since.”

Animal magnetist Palmer and his son B.J. apparently did not know that the nerves controlling hearing are contained in the head only and do not even reach the spine. Palmer thought that he had made the breakthrough that had eluded the greatest medical minds of all the ages-he had found the single cause of all human disease. Disease, he decided, is caused by misaligned vertebrae. These misalignments or “subluxations” impinge on the nerves that issue from the spine, thus causing illness.

Palmer believed it in 1895, and chiropractor’s still believe it today. Here is how it is described in a statement issued by the International Chiropractors Association in 1964:

The philosophy of chiropractic is based upon the premise that disease or abnormal function is caused by interference with nerve transmission and ex-pression, due to pressure, strain, or tension upon the spinal cord or spinal nerves, as a result of bony segments of the vertebral column deviating from their normal juxtaposition.

The cause of disease having been discovered, the cure is simple. One gives the patient an energetic backrub, called a “chiropractic adjustment.” This forces the wandering vertebrae back into place, relieving the pressure on the nerves, thus aiding a return of “nerve force” which results in curing the patient’s illness. Again quoting the statement of the International Chiropractors Association:

The practice of chiropractic consists of analysis of any interference with normal nerve transmission and expression, and the correction thereof by an adjustment with the hands of the abnormal deviations of the bony articulations of the vertebral column for the restoration and maintenance of health, without the use of drugs or surgery.

Nowhere in the medical literature is there published any report demonstrating the validity of chiropractic theory. In a letter to a Senate subcommittee which in June 1964 was holding hearings on proposed amendments to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, F.J.L. Blasingame, M.D., executive vice president of the American Medical Association, wrote:

Chiropractic is not based on scientific principles. The medical profession regards chiropractic as a cult, because it follows the hypothesis of its founder that disease results from pressure on nerves due to minor misalignments of the spinal column. Based on such a premise, chiropractors claim that illness .and conditions such as allergies, diabetes, heart trouble, tonsilitis, and even cancer, to name a few, can be cured by adjusting or manipulating certain areas of the spinal column. Such a theory, of course, runs counter to the established facts of medical science.

Scientific testimony on the subject is overwhelming. Chiropractic theory and treatment of disease run counter to nearly everything that has been learned about disease and its causes since the Dark Ages. Human disease stems, not from one cause but from many causes, and among those causes the impingement of a spinal nerve by vertebral subluxation as described by the chiropractor is rarely or never to be found.

“Chiropractic,” says the Medical Society of the State of New York, “is no more scientifically valid than fortune-telling and astrology.”

Milton Helpern, M.D., chief medical examiner of the City of New York, says, “The teachers, research workers, and practitioners of medicine reject the so-called principle on which chiropractic is based and correctly and bluntly label it a fraud and hoax on the human race.”

To begin with, straying vertebrae, alleged by chiropractors to be an all-but-universal phenomenon, are actually a distinctly unusual occurrence. Second, pressure on nerves from vertebrae, claimed by chiropractors to be a common and flourishing evil, is extremely rare, and a complete physical impossibility unless dislocation or fracture of the most serious kind has occurred.

At the request of the Subcommittee on Cults of the Medical Society of the State of New York, a three-man commission made a study of the practice of chiropractic. The conclusion was that the fundamental tenets of chiropractic are not scientifically valid.

“Permanent reduction of a subluxation by chiropractic manipulation is frequently impossible,” said the commission’s report, “as many subluxations result from degeneration of the discs between vertebrae which normally maintain the nerve openings. No amount of manipulation will restore the degenerated discs.

“There is an even greater barrier to the successful application of chiropractic methods . . . Many very important nerves leave the central nervous system through bony openings which are entirely rigid, formed of a solid ring of bone . . . No amount of manipulation can change the rigid openings through which these nerves pass from the skull or sacrum.”

The members of the commission were Philip B. Armstrong, M.D., Syracuse University College of Medicine; Homer D. Kesten, M.D., College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, and LeRoy L. Barnes, Ph.D., Cornell University.

A statement on chiropractic issued by the faculty of medicine of McGill University in 1963 says:

The theory which underlies chiropractic is false … Biology is probably the most complex and difficult of sciences and human biology is its most important branch. To reduce it to one primary mechanical concept is simple-minded and dangerous … It is the custom of chiropractors to carry out therapeutic exercises of which they know little on human bodies of which they know less.

If the concept of the cause of disease accepted by every chiropractor is false, it follows inescapably that chiropractic diagnosis of the cause of an illness bears no relation to the real reason why a person is ill. Chiropractic treatment, designed to eliminate causes that do not exist while denying the existence of the real causes, will be at best worthless and at worst mortally dangerous.

“No real disease or ailment can be cured by chiropractic adjustments,” says the Louisiana State Medical Society. “Chiropractors, since they are not trained to recognize disease, may start a course of worthless adjustments which will delay the patient from seeing a qualified physician. As an example, it is known that many forms of cancer, if diagnosed and treated in the early stages, can be cured. A person going to a chiropractor would lose the benefit of early diagnosis and treatment with fatal results. The same is true with many diseases which respond to treatment by certain drugs.”

Even though false in its ideas, wrong (and therefore dangerous) in its analysis and treatment, chiropractic has survived and remains a monument to the tragic gullibility of persons who are ill. Much of its success is due to the keen business sense and promotional flair of D. D. Palmer’s son, B.J.

Soon after making his “discovery,” Daniel David Palmer entered into a partnership with a lawyer, Willard Carver, and set up a chiropractic school in Oklahoma City. Relinquishing his interest in this venture, Palmer returned to Davenport, where he and his son, B.J., soon had another school going. At first the course ran for two weeks, at the conclusion of which the student got his “doctor’s degree.” By 1898, the course had been lengthened to three months. The Palmer School began with a tuition of $500, dropped it to $300, then raised it to $450 with a $50 discount for cash.

In 1906, D.D. Palmer was convicted in Davenport, Iowa, of practicing medicine without a license and spent six months in jail. At this juncture, B.J. bought his dad out. “He (Daniel Palmer) and his son began a legal turmoil which finally ended in the sale of the now flourishing school to the son for $2,196.79,” says an article in Southwestern Medicine. “However, D.D. Palmer demanded two abnormal spines, six vertebrae, and any 12 books in the library, which, with the gift of truth, seemed to be the necessities for establishing another institution.”

After he got out of jail, Daniel drifted from place to place, setting up severa! more chiropractic schools, all of which failed. He died in 1913. By this time his son was on his way to amassing a personal fortune from the Palmer School. Under his astute guidance and promotion, enrollment soared; by 1920, it was manufacturing chiropractors by the hundreds and had become the fountainhead of the cult.

The Palmer School is still going strong: B.J. died in 1961, and it is now run by his son David Daniel. It remains as the last strong bastion of “straight” chiropractic today. This school of thought emphasizes manual adjustments of the spine as the almost exclusive treatment offered by chiropractors.

The now-defunct Carver school. which had been set up originally in Oklahoma City by Palmer and Carver and continued by Carver when Palmer returned to Davenport, differed from the Palmer methods and evolved an approach in which such things as fad diets, colonic irrigation, and other castoffs and orphans from the world of scientific medicine were made part of the chiropractor’s armory of disease=fighting tools, as supplements to the adjustments.

The two approaches to chiropractic have continued to this day. Adherents to the Palmer approach are called “straights” and followers of Carver are called “mixers.” Feuding between the two groups has often been bitter. Chiropractic colleges in the United States align themselves with one of the two schools of thought, and the two groups even have separate associations.

Many graduates from the Palmer and Carver schools realized that there was more money in creating chiropractors than in practicing chiropractic, and set up schools of their own. Most have been short-lived diploma mills, and some offered “doctor’s” degrees by mail. Several hundred chiropractic schools have operated in the United States, of which only 13 are in existence today. Not a single one enjoys accreditation by any recognized educational accrediting body in the United States.

Chiropractors, both “straights” and “mixers,” are among the largest groups of users of dubious and fraudulent diagnostic machines in the United States. B.J. Palmer himself made a fortune by leasing to chiropractors a device called the Neurocalometer, alleged to locate the patient’s subluxations electronically. In 1960, Stanford Research Institute investigators found that the readings on the machine’s dial, alleged to show the presence of subluxations, could actually be drastically changed simply by applying various degrees of pressure to the electrode as it moved up and down the spine.

Another device, the “Bioelectrometer Electrophysical Resistance Instrument,” was alleged to locate subluxations of the spine and to be effective in diagnosing and treating numerous ills such as arthritis, asthma, bursitis, piles, backaches, kidney, heart and stomach disorders, dizziness, blood pressure problems, and migraine headaches. The device was seized by the Food and Drug Administration and was condemned by default decree in 1963.

In another 1963 court action, Roy W. DeWelles, a chiropractor, was sentenced to serve 10 years for medical quackery. Traveling around the country with an assistant, he sold a package deal to other chiropractors for the use and pro-motion of a healing device called the “Detoxacolon.” Patients, being told after a chiropractic diagnosis that they were suffering from serious ills, were charged up to $500 for treatments. DeWelles admitted receiving more than $500,000 from the sale of the machines. In addition, postal inspectors estimated that he bilked his own patients of at least $1 million through use of the device, while other chiropractors who bought and used it took in at least another $2 million.

Among the many triumphs of chiropractic, none is more remarkable than its achievement of licensure status in all but three states. The Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and other national and state agencies routinely act to protect the public against other medical cults, treatments, and promotions whose scientific basis is as false as that of chiropractic. But the chiropractor is safe behind his license, and is thus the oddest anomaly in the healing arts today.

From the cult’s earliest days its practitioners have been enthusiastic and well-organizecl boosters. They pushed for official recognition of chiropractic, in whose doctrines the majority of them undoubtedly believed. From the earliest days they not only set up energetic associations and lobbies of their own, but skillfully marshalled rural sentiment, and the support of fraternal and veterans’ groups, to their cause.

In legislative hearings, scientists uniformly testified that the cult’s doctrine was false and dangerous, but scientific truth is not always the basis of legislation. The· state legislatures, rurally dominated and far less sophisticated than such bodies are today, were bowled over like so many tenpins during the early decades of this century. The first licensing act was passed by Kansas in 1913. By 1915, five states had such laws; by 1925, 32.

From then on, the chiropractors were coasting in. Legislators in most of the remaining states, caught between the clear fact of the falsity of chiropractic practice and belief and the equally clear fact that chiropractors enjoyed Iicensure in more than half the states, threw up their hands in embarrassed confusion. Most decided that the lesser evil was to license the cult and thus at least bring it under regulation.

Most of these state licensing laws set standards for chiropractic education and place some limitations on how deeply chiropractors can enter into the practice of medicine. But the laws, while supervising and regulating, also grant recognition, and chiropractic is thus the only licensed medical superstition in existence.

Many of the state laws have “grandfather clauses;” that is, chiropractors al-ready in practice when the law was passed were not required to meet its educational standards or to take prescribed tests. Thus, a substantial percentage of all chiropractors in practice today have little or no education of any kind and got their “doctor’s degrees” from fly-by-night diploma mills.

The most important provision in the licensing laws of most states is that aspiring chiropractors must pass a series of “basic science examinations” in anatomy, bacteriology, chemistry, diagnosis, hygiene, pathology, physiology, and public health. The same requirement is placed on aspiring medical doctors.

It is evident that passage of such written examinations does not remotely qualify one to treat the sick. As a matter of practice, medical students take and pass the exams at an early stage of their medical educations, and spend years of additional study, internship, and research before they are qualified to treat human illness. By contrast, almost the entire thrust of chiropractic education is aimed at getting the students past these examinations, which constitute the principal hurdle they must surmount to enter their profession.

In five states the same basic science exams are given to students of chiro-practic and students of medicine, and the exams are graded by the same board on a uniform standard. In these states an average of 81.4 percent of all medical students pass the exams on their first try. An average of 84.5 percent of chiropractic students fail.

Chiropractors are exerting strenuous efforts to prevent such information from being compiled. The American Chiropractic Association (the “mixers”) is pushing to prohibit exam applicants from having to list the college from which they are applying; this would make it difficult to tell how chiropractic students as a group fared on the exams.

The International Chiropractic Association (the “straights”) is working to prevent medical and chiropractic students from having their exams graded by the same board. The value to chiropractors of the latter procedure has been well demonstrated. In states in which medical students’ exams are graded by a board of M.D.’s, and chiropractic students’ exams are graded by a board of chiropractors, the showing of the chiropractic students improves tremendously.

In chiropractic colleges it is common lore among the students that some states have “easy” exam standards and other states are “tough.” Some students even establish residency in “easy” states in order to squeak by the exams there; they can then achieve licensure through reciprocity in other states where reciprocal licensing arrangements have been established.

New York, one of the last holdout states, finally bowed to the relentless pressure of chiropractic groups and passed a chiropractic licensing law in 1963. Chiropractors, who had fought for the law, promptly fought to avoid its examination requirements. They first challenged the constitutionality of requiring such exams. When this suit failed, almost 1,800 chiropractors showed up to take the exam in April 1964 but they promptly filed another suit to prevent the state from grading the exams. This suit, too, failed, and a compilation of the grades showed that more than 1,000 had failed, including many who had been treating the sick for decades.

Standards and facilities of the schools that produce these “doctors,” although improved from the days when the Palmer School granted doctor’s degrees for two weeks’ work, are incredibly inferior to those of genuine medical schools. In 1960, Stanford Research Institute published a study of the programs and facilities of the two leading chiropractic colleges in California (a third school in California refused to permit the Stanford researchers to study its facilities). The study showed that only seven percent of the students at the two schools had bachelor’s degrees. Out of 29 faculty members at the two colleges, only 10 claimed to have bachelor’s degrees, and in four of these cases the college from which the faculty member claimed to have a degree denied that such a degree had been granted. (In the public school system of most states today a bachelor’s degree is required even to teach kindergarten.)

Comparing the schools with UCLA Medical School, the survey found that UCLA Medical School had one fulltime faculty member for every 1.3 students; at one of the chiropractic colleges there were 18.6 students for every fulltime faculty member; at the other, 32 students for every full-time faculty member. Total income spent per student at UCLA Medical School was $13,942; at one of the chiropractic colleges, $709; at the other, $322. Laboratory facilities at UCLA were vast and were intensively used; laboratory facilities at the chiropractic schools were meager and appeared to be little used. The same applied to the libraries. In 1957, UCLA Medical School allotted $231.92 per student for its library budget. One of the chiropractic schools allotted $2.67 per student for its library in 1957; the other, nothing at all.

Admission requirements for schools of chiropractic are open to question. To get information on admission standards, a careful study was made, involving seven leading schools, all accredited by either the International Chiropractic Association or the American Chiropractic Association (formerly the National Chiropractic Association).

Letters were sent to each of the seven schools, requesting admittance to the fall, 1963 class. The letters—all from fictitious persons—glaringly revealed inadequate academic preparation through poor grammar and numerous spelling and punctuation errors.

All seven schools responded to the letters by forwarding applications, catalogues, and promotional literature. Further correspondence then ensued between the schools and the fictitious applicants, in which, for one reason or another, the applicant was unable to produce a high school diploma or equivalency certificate. Nevertheless, five of the seven schools granted conditional acceptances.

In one letter the applicant described himself as a truck driver who “wasn’t too good of a student in high school.” The school forwarded two Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED). These were filled out in such a way that less than a 10th-grade level of achievement was reflected and returned to the school. The applicant said that he could not supply high school transcripts because “they were lost.” He received a conditional acceptance, and was told that he would have to take high-school equivalency tests during the first quarter of the school year.

Another “applicant” described herself as a single girl, 32, with an eighth-grade education, who was running a massage parlor and wanted to enter a “more respectable profession.” She was also accepted conditionally with the proviso that she take the General Educational Development (GED) tests during her first quarter.

Another letter was allegedly from an 18-year-old high school graduate who stated that he didn’t want to “waste my time at regular colleges because everyone I ever know who went to Illinois, Loyola, DePaul, and other colleges around here always flunked out and wound up doing something that didn’t have no future.” Two recommendation forms which were forwarded by the school to the applicant were filled out by “friends” who indicated that the applicant had very mediocre characteristics. The applicant was accepted prior to receipt of high-school records, with the possibility of the application being reconsidered if the transcripts, when they arrived, showed less than a “C” average.

Serious as these educational shortcomings are, the most serious and dangerous thing about chiropractic remains the fact that its beliefs are sheer myth, and its methods of treatment have nothing whatever to do with the cause and cure of illness. As Edward T. Wentworth, M.D., past president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, has said:

The only form of legislative control of chiropractic which makes sense is to prohibit its practice because it is a fraud . . . Whether the chiropractor is deceived, whether he fails to understand the irrationality of the chiropractic principle, or whether he deliberately practices deception of the public, we don’t have to decide … There is no such thing as compromise between science and fraud. Science is based upon demonstrable relations of fact to fact, not once or occasionally by chance, but always. Fraud is circumvention of factual relation by deceit and trickery. One single admission of fraud into science destroys science.

Ralph Lee Smith investigated and wrote about many quackery-related topics during the 1960s and 1970s. After that, he taught communications at Howard University and operated a writing and editing service. He also became interested in folk music and became a leading promoter and player of the Appalachian dulcimer. This article was originally published in the May 1965  issue of Today’s Health magazine. His investigations culminated in publication of the book At Your Own Risk: The Case against Chiropractic.