At Your Own Risk: Chapter 1

Ralph Lee Smith

Daniel David Palmer, inventor of chiropractic (the term is used both as an adjective and a noun), was born near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on March 7, 1845. He was one of six children of Thomas Palmer, a shoemaker, and his wife Katherine. In April, 1865, when he was twenty, he and his twenty-two-year-old brother Thomas left home together and headed for the United States. After walking for thirty days they reached Buffalo, where they spent their last savings for boat passage to Detroit. There, according to Daniel, they slept on grain sacks near a boat pier, ate a persimmon for breakfast, and found temporary work.

Thomas’s wanderings brought him to the town of Medford in Oklahoma Territory, where he eventually entered the real estate business and lived to a ripe old age. By the 1880’s Daniel had married and settled in What Cheer, Iowa, where he made a living as a grocer and fish peddler. He was to marry five more times before his life ended in lonely bitterness in California in 1913.

Improbably enough, beneath the exterior of this man there burned the narrow, fierce heart of a prophet. He searched for revelations and, when he found them, tolerated no doubts even among his closest followers and his family. If he had been born in Arabia he might have risen from obscurity to lead a Holy War. As it was, he was destined to found a new sect of true believers.

The nineteenth century was a great age for medical and psychic cults, and Palmer was engrossed in them. He looked into osteopathy, then in its rough-and-ready infancy. He dabbled in phrenology and spiritualism. In 1886, apparently feeling some kind of “call,” he moved from What Cheer to Davenport, Iowa, and set up a “magnetic healing” studio in that city’s tenderloin district. Practitioners of magnetic healing believed that they belonged to a unique group of human beings whose personal magnetism was so great that it gave them the power to cure disease. The truth was much more mundane: the untutored healers had developed a crude knowledge of hypnotism.

For nine years Palmer immersed himself in the practice of personal magnetism, providing no family life for his three daughters or for his son Bartlett Joshua. During this time Palmer was involved in a search that had come to be the passion of his life. He was looking for nature’s Great Secret — the cause of human disease. Not causes. In medieval fashion, he believed in a single cause, a single factor responsible for all illnesses. With that single cause discovered, a single method for eliminating it could be found, and the curse of disease would pass from the human race.

“One question was always uppermost in my mind in my search for the cause of disease,” he said. “I desired to know why one person was ailing and his associate, eating at the same table, working in the same shop, at the same bench, was not. Why? What difference was there in the two persons that caused one to have pneumonia, catarrh, typhoid, or rheumatism, while his partner, similarly situated, escaped? Why? [1:18]

Palmer struggled with his demon, and at last it yielded up its secret. “This question [as to the cause of disease] had worried thousands for centuries,” be said, “and was answered in September, 1895.” Actually, his account of his discovery is in some ways so bizarre that one cannot be sure how much of it really happened and how much of it was supplied by the workings of a feverish brain. For whatever it is worth, here is Palmer’s story.

On the block where his offices were located, Palmer says, there worked a janitor named Harvey Lillard who had been deaf for seventeen years. Palmer made inquiry and found that “when he [Lillard] was exerting himself in a cramped, stooping position, he felt something give way in his back and immediately became deaf.”

Palmer examined Lillard and found a subluxated (misaligned) vertebra in his spine. “I reasoned that if that vertebra was replaced,” said Palmer, “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.”

Palmer laid Lillard down on his stomach on an examining couch, and applied a firm pressure to the vertebra with his hands. The vertebra moved back into place, “and soon the man could hear as before.”

Magnetic healer Palmer could hardly be expected to know that the nerves of hearing are self-contained in the head and do not reach the spine. And the reader is entitled to wonder how Palmer discussed Lillard’s problem with him for a half hour while Lillard was deaf. But Palmer believed that he was on the track of the Great Secret.

“Shortly after this relief from deafness, I had a case of heart trouble which was not improving. 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. . . “

“Then I began to reason,” he continued, “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?” [1:pp 18-19] “The other five percent,” he said, “is caused by displaced bones, other than those of the vertebral column, more especially those of the tarsus, metatarsus and phalanges, which, by their displacement, are the cause of bunions and corns” [1:56]

To Palmer, the truth was clear: “A subluxated vertebra, a vertebral bone, is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases.”‘ “Luxated bones,” he explains, press against nerves.

By their displacement and pressure they elongate the pathway of the nerve in a manner similar to that by which an impingement upon a wire of a musical instrument induces it to become taut by displacing it from a direct line. This pressure upon a nerve creates greater tension, increased vibration, and consequently an increased amount of heat. Heat alters tissue; altered tissue modifies the transmission of impulses; modified impulses cause functions to be performed abnormally [1:58].

So there it was — the secret of disease revealed. Disease is caused by nerves that are pinched by misaligned spinal. vertebrae. The cure consists in exerting a manual pressure on the misaligned vertebrae and forcing them back into place. Daniel David Palmer believed it in 1895, and, as we shall see, it remains the basic concept of chiropractic today.

Palmer confided his discovery to a friend, Reverend Samuel Weed. Weed suggested that the new marvel be called “chiropractic,” from the Greek cheiro and praktikos, “done by hand.”

At first Palmer did not want to let the world in on his awe-inspiring secret. He even took down a mirror on his office wall when it occurred to him that his patients might be using it to watch what he was doing. But before the end of 1895 his attitude had changed, and instead of concealing his discovery, he had set up the Palmer School of Chiropractic to teach it. The course ran for three months; the student learned how to adjust spines, and got a quick medical education from Dr. Pierce’s Family Medical Adviser. The Palmer School began with a tuition of $500, dropped it to $300, then raised it to $450 with a $50 discount for cash. The only admission requirement was the ability to pay the fee.

Of his early students and disciples, by far the most important from the standpoint of the future of chiropractic was his own son Bartlett Joshua, usually known simply by his initials B.J. Like many discoverers and prophets, Daniel David Palmer was almost entirely deficient in the worldly arts of commercial success. His son was a commercial and public relations genius. The result was that Daniel David died penniless while B.J., who took over the school and the leadership of chiropractic, died a multimillionaire.

While his father was occupied in discovering the cause and cure of human illness, B.J., who was born in 1881, apparently experienced a grim childhood. In 1949 he published a book entitled The Bigness of the Fellow Within, the preface to which was written by Herbert C. Hender, dean of the Palmer School. Speaking of B.J., Hender said:

The first twenty years of this boy’s life were spent in being educated to hate people and everything they did or were connected with.

His mother died when he was one-and-a-half years old. From then on, he was at the mercy of five cruel stepmothers, each worse than the one before.

Because of brutality at home, he was often forced to sleep in dry-goods boxes in alleys, often with the weather below zero, curled like a rat in a nest with paper packing, with open face of box backed up against brick walls; under kitchen sinks of hotels; or by boilers of boats on the Mississippi.

He worked for a time as floor scrubber, window washer, spittoon cleaner, and special-delivery boy for a department store in his home town, 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….

This is just a beginning of tales he could tell of horrors of his early family and home life [2:xv]

Like his father, B.J. had little schooling. He was questioned about it when he testified in a Wisconsin trial involving a chiropractor in 1910 [3].

Q. How old are you?
A. I was twenty-eight last September.
Q. And you have been studying chiropractics sixteen years?
A. I have.
Q. Then you began the study of chiropractics at the age of twelve?
A. At the age of twelve I was practicing in the field as a practitioner. [B.J. was in error here, since he was twelve in 1893-1894, before his father invented chiropractic.]
Q. Of what?
A. Chiropractics. At the age of eleven I was kicked from home, forced to make my living.
Q. What education had you up to that time?
A. Common sense.
Q. What education had you had at the time you began the practice of chiropractics?
A. Common sense.
Q. None other?
A. Well, horse reasoning.
Q. Any other?
A. Good judgment.
Q. Any other, I ask you?
A. That is enough [3:xvii]

The beginnings of B.J.’s association with his father in launching chiropractic are obscure. “When in his teens,” says Hender, “he [B.J.] was forced by circumstances beyond his control to begin his professional career as a Chiropractor, starting in his own home town where he once lived as an alley-cat and wharf-rat.” Whatever kind of working relationship they may have established, it is clear that father and son were both involved in operating the school almost from the outset. By 1902 B.J. bad grown a beard to look older than his twenty years and was teaching at the new institution. Soon it was aggressive, precocious B.J., not his father, who was running the school and presiding over the nationwide spread of chiropractic.

Matters came to a head in 1906 when B.J. was twenty-four. Father and son were both charged with practicing medicine without a license. The father was brought to trial first — the reason, says B.J. cryptically, is “best known by local merchants.” He was found guilty and went to jail. B.J. was never tried.

After Daniel David was released from jail, B.J. bought out his business. For the Palmer School B.J. paid his father $2,196.79, plus one normal spine, one abnormal spine, six vertebrae, and Daniel David’s choice of any twelve books from the school library. Daniel David Palmer left Davenport, deeply embittered. His bitterness increased when, in the same year, B.J. published his first book on chiropractic. Daniel claimed that “most of its contents, which gave the principles of the science and somewhat of the art of adjusting vertebrae, were from my pen.”

From the time he left Davenport until his death seven years later, Daniel’s life was that of a wanderer. He journeyed to Medford, Oklahoma, where his brother had settled, and there went back into the grocery business, but soon abandoned it and left for the Pacific coast. In 1910, in Portland, Oregon, he published an immense, chaotic book entitled Text-Book of the Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic, Founded on Tone. The 1,007-page volume is full of unhappy diatribes against other chiropractors and against his son.

In 1911 he returned to Davenport and founded a new chiropractic school, the Universal Chiropractic College, two blocks from the now-thriving Palmer School. Within a year, however, he abandoned this, too, and went to California.

In July, 1913, the Palmer School of Chiropractic held its annual Lyceum and Homecoming, complete with a parade through the streets of the town. B.J. Palmer rode in an automobile in the parade. Suddenly a ghost materialized on the sidewalk — Daniel David Palmer. Waving a small American flag, he insisted on leading the alumni procession, but was prohibited from doing so by the marshal of the parade, who was a student at the school. An altercation ensued. B.J. drove up in his automobile. Words passed between father and son. What happened after that depends on whom you believe. Daniel David claimed that B.J. struck him with his automobile, and D.D’s friends and allies later produced affidavits of witnesses to prove it. B.J. flatly denied it, and produced many more affidavits to this effect than D.D.’s cohorts were able to muster.

That night Daniel David Palmer left Davenport for the last time. Three months later he died in Los Angeles. He stipulated that his son was not to come to his funeral.

The executors of the father’s estate filed a civil damages suit against B.J., alleging that B.J. had struck Daniel David with his car and that this had contributed to the father’s death. After pending in court for several months, the action was dropped without prejudice, and was never reinstated. The Scott County District Attorney also sought a murder indictment against B.J., but two grand juries refused to return a true bill.

Meanwhile B.J. was on his way to making a fortune. Ironically, a by-product of his immense personal success was a tremendous diffusion of the cult. Under B.J. Palmer’s long reign, which ended only with his death in 1961, chiropractic achieved such a wide base of practice and activity that it continues to flourish in the Space Age.

“Our school,” ” B.J. said frankly, “is on a business, not a professional basis. We manufacture chiropractors.” He advertised widely for students, and to a prospect who was worried about having a spotty educational background he wrote, “In regard to educational qualifications, do not allow this to annoy you. We hold no entrance examinations.” An inveterate sloganeer, he decorated the grounds, walls, stair risers, and even the rest rooms of the Palmer School with such sayings as “The world is your cow — but you must do the milking,” and “Early to bed and early to rise — work like hell and advertise.” A slogan on the wall of the ladies’ rest room said, “Beauty is only skin-deep. Many people need peeling.”

The course was lengthened to nine months, and a correspondence course leading to a Doctor of Chiropractic degree was made available for those who could not attend in person. Business was soon booming. Chiropractic spread rapidly, the Palmer School became known among chiropractors as “the Fountainhead,” and B.J. became the guru of the cult

Bemused by B.J.’s success, other chiropractors rushed to become educators. It has been estimated that as many as 600 chiropractic schools have existed in the United States, many of them fly-by-night operations, “Manufacturing” chiropractors in shabby rooms or lofts, or granting degrees by mail. Many chiropractors in practice today obtained their doctor’s degrees from one of these operations. In 1945 Medical Economics reported that it was still possible to obtain a mail-order doctor of chiropractic degree from a Chicago college for $127.50.

B.J. had no objection to the proliferation of schools. In addition to running the Palmer School he conducted a brisk mail-order business, selling chiropractors throughout the nation such items as adjustment tables, miniature spine sections, and portraits of B.J. Palmer. He also made available to them, on lease only, a gadget called the Neurocalometer, about which we will hear more presently.

As the money poured in, B.J. created a miniature Ivy League campus for the Palmer School complete with bell tower and chimes. With characteristic perspicacity he also became a radio pioneer, establishing radio station WOC (Wonders of Chiropractic) in Davenport and securing control of WHO in Des Moines. During his life he also wrote thirty-eight books, including one called Radio Salesmanship which went through a number of printings. In his spare time he made himself available for lectures on business psychology.

A prodigious earner, he was also a prodigious spender. He purchased several summer residences, including one in Sarasota, Florida, near his friend and fellow showman, John Ringling North (among other things, Palmer was a circus buff ). With his family be traveled over a million miles around the world, and had mountains of relics and gimcracks shipped back to Davenport from the far corners of the earth.

The treasures and trash from his voyages overflowed his house and spilled out over the campus. The garden of the Palmer School’s clinic contains, among other things, a torii-red wooden entrance gate — from a Japanese temple, bronze flamingos, cast-iron elks, and an immense anchor. Another section of the campus, called “A Little Bit o’ Heaven,” contains innumerable items including a ninety-ton Buddha, eight Hindu idols carved from lava, a marble sculpture called “The Birth of Venus,” Chinese Foo dogs, satsuma vases, “The Pearly Gates of St. Peter” inlaid with semiprecious stones, a replica of the Black Hole of Calcutta, a bench from King Tut’s tomb, and “the world’s two largest clamshells.” In his own house it is reported that Palmer kept an immense collection of swords and sabers and a large assortment of shrunken heads.

Also on the campus is a large greenhouse, over two stories high, filled with exotic trees and plants. On the outside wall, inlaid in marble and multicolored tile, is a slogan reading, “Anything I do you don’t do is queer. Queer, isn’t it? B.J.”

Once, when Palmer was traveling with his family in Hawaii, he received a cable that his Saint Bernard dog, Big Ben, had had a heart attack and died while chasing a poodle across the street. B.J. promptly canceled the rest of his trip, booked passage home for the whole family, and had Big Ben stuffed and placed under the piano in the living room.

Throughout his life B.J. affirmed his belief in the pure doctrine of chiropractic as enunciated by his father. “Chiropractic principle has the vertebral subluxation as the cause of all dis-ease,” he wrote. “Chiropractic practice has the vertebral adjustment as the cure of all disease.” “No man ever questioned his sincerity toward chiropractic,” says his son, David Daniel Palmer (the founder’s names reversed), in a book published in 1967. However, when I traveled to Davenport to secure information for this chapter, I made some interesting discoveries.

Although B.J. alleged in his public writings that chiropractic treatment would cure all diseases, when be was ill he went to see medical doctors in Davenport. Among other things, these doctors discovered that B.J.’s own spine was about the worst possible advertisement for the value of chiropractic treatment that could be imagined. When B.J. developed a urinary tract problem his spine was X-rayed by a competent group of specialists. “He had the worst-looking spine of anyone you’ve ever seen,” the doctor who supervised the X rays told me. “It showed very advanced degenerative arthritis with marked curvature.” Later he developed cancer of the colon and received medical treatment for it, including surgery. Part of the colon was removed, but it was not possible to check the cancer, and B.J. died of it in 1961 at age seventy-nine. His son, David Daniel, age fifty-five, assumed control of the family affairs.

David Daniel’s accession as president of the Palmer School was a watershed. With B.J.’s death the Old Guard passed. B.J.’s loud-checkered vests and Van Dyke beard, with all they symbolized, are now being replaced by the gray flannel suit. But unfortunately, the thrust of the changes has not been to accept science. Instead, the identical doctrine is being decked out in a dress more suitable to our times.

The Palmer School is now the Palmer College of Chiropractic. “We threw out the flamboyancy, the things that kept it from being a college,” David Daniel Palmer says. “We gave it a new image; academic standards; a college spirit.”

Some of the slogans have been removed from the college’s buildings and walls — and, more interestingly, B.J.’s books are not on the college library’s shelves. It would apparently now require considerable industry on the part of a Palmer student to learn some of the information about the origin and growth of chiropractic that uninhibited B.J. put into such volumes as The Bigness of the Fellow Within. When I looked up B.J. Palmer in the library’s card index, a card said, “The works of B.J. Palmer are not cataloged. Inquire at desk.” When I asked at the desk, the librarian on duty said, “We don’t have very many of them. They are locked up and can’t be checked out.”

Twenty-two states now require chiropractors to have one or two years’ college credit, in addition to their chiropractic educations, in order to be licensed. David Daniel Palmer founded and is president of Palmer Junior College, which shares facilities with the Palmer College of Chiropractic. The junior college is accredited and grants two-year associate of arts degrees. If one wishes, one can graduate from the junior college and then go on to the chiropractic course.

The family-owned Palmer Broadcasting Company has extensive radio and TV holdings, the value of which was estimated in 1965 at $15 to $20 million.

In 1967, Iowa Governor Harold Hughes nominated Palmer to fill a vacancy on the nine-member Board of Regents, which supervises the state’s institutions of higher education, including the University of Iowa College of Medicine. There was a furor when the Iowa Medical Society objected. The Iowa Senate voted 35 to 24 to confirm the nomination, but this was six votes short of the required two-thirds majority. His name remained before the Senate on a motion to reconsider while his backers tried to rally enough votes. But the governor then withdrew the nomination on Palmer’s request. Palmer wrote the governor that the “controversy engendered by a minority group with vested interests has subjected you, personally, to much embarrassment.”

David Daniel Palmer and his family live in a twenty-room brick house surrounded by evergreens, overlooking the Mississippi River, on whose dark wharves B.J. slept as a child seventy-five years ago. In the face of all the available evidence of twentieth-century medical science,. David Daniel and the nation’s other chiropractors continue to base much or all of their approach to human disease on the Iowa grocer’s dream.

Near the center of the Palmer campus are two large granite shafts, one surmounted by an immense bust of Daniel David Palmer and the other by an equally large bust of B.J. In a niche in each shaft, protected by a panel of glass, are bronze urns containing their ashes. The prophet and his son are at peace.

1. D. D. Palmer, Text-Book of the science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic, Founded on Tone (Portland, Ore.: Portland Printing House Company, 1910, republished 1966).
2. Palmer BJ. The Bigness of the Fellow Within. Davenport: Chiropractic Fountain Head, 1949.
3. State of Wisconsin v. S.R. Jansheski. Tried in the District Court of Milwaukee, Wis., December, 1910. Portions of testimony reprinted in A Chiropractic Catechism (American Medical Association Bureau of Legal Medicine and Legislation, n.d), p 6.

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