Mind & Body

The Unbelievable True Story of the First Chiropractor

These days, chiropractors exist in a strange place in the public consciousness, somewhere between bonafide physician and ...well, quack. Sure, it feels great to have your back cracked, but it's not as if it's going to help the deaf hear again. But allegedly, the very first chiropractic adjustment was to do exactly that. And that supposed miracle was only the beginning of what's either the most magical medical treatment or the most medical magic trick of all time.

The Doctor and the Ghost

Meet D.D. Palmer — or as he liked to call himself, "Old Dad." We know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but just look at that face. You know this is a guy with a few strange stories up his sleeve. Before there was a philosophy based on getting spines in alignment, D.D. was a garden variety 19th-century spiritualist and healer. His medicine of choice? Why, magnets, of course. But all that changed when he was visited by a medical luminary by the name of Dr. Jim Atkinson in 1895. Atkinson explained to D.D. how misalignment of the body could blossom into more serious conditions, and how the bones could be realigned to cure those very conditions.

Oh, did we mention that Dr. Atkinson had died about 50 years before the conversation took place? Inspired by the (probably fictional) ghost of a (definitely real) doctor, chiropractic has straddled the metaphysical and the scientific since the very beginning.

But of course, the spooky Dr. Atkinson only helped D.D. Palmer conceive of his art; the true birth of chiropractic came when he went hands-on. Enter Harvey Lillard. His story has a few different versions. Either a janitor or the owner of the janitorial company at Palmer's office, Lillard had a severe hearing impairment — until Palmer either subjected him to a precise chiropractic adjustment carried out over three days, or slapped him on the back after he told a joke and knocked a misaligned vertebra back into place. Whatever happened, Lillard (allegedly) regained his sense of hearing and chiropractic was born.

Science or Religion?

Chiropractic's early days were a constant struggle to survive. The fight began in its birthplace of Davenport, Iowa, where Palmer was prosecuted and jailed for performing medicine without a license. After he was released, he sold the practice to his son B.J. and headed for greener pastures in California — where he encountered the same problem again. For it to continue, chiropractic had to legitimize itself, and there were two ways to do so as the Palmers saw it. Chiropractic could either justify itself scientifically as an evidence-based medical practice or sidestep that requirement by taking on the mantle of religion.

Ultimately, the medical strategy won out. In 1922, the Chiropractic Initiative Act passed in California, outlining the exact training requirements that a chiropractor would need to complete to practice — and allowing that chiropractor to identify themselves as a doctor. Right or wrong, this practice has gone unchanged for nearly a century.

Still, the spiritual side of the equation remained. In one 1911 letter, D.D. Palmer (calling himself "Old Dad") wrote with great passion about how urgent the need was to incorporate as a church — and, incidentally, gain the tax exemptions that would come with it. In that regard, he seemed particularly resentful of the Christian Scientists, who had popped up around 1875.

He also revealed some opinions about who deserved to be at the head of that religion, saying "The policy of the U.C.A. is the best that B.J. can be at the head of, BUT THE RELIGIOUS MOVE IS FAR BETTER, but we must incorporate under the man who received the principles of chiropractic from the other world, who wrote the book of all chiropractic books, who today has much new matter, valuable, which is not contained in that book." In other words, the founder's son might be a good enough leader if chiropractic is merely a worldly practice, but if it's a religious one, then the leader had better be the guy who came up with it, the font of creation himself.

A Misaligned End

Today, chiropractors tend to play up the medical side of the practice over the spiritual side, although you'll certainly find plenty of offices that also offer crystal healing or astrological services. But the religious bent is only one of the aspects of the Palmers' relationship that modern practitioners prefer to downplay. There's also the persistent rumor that B.J. Palmer killed his father. It's hard to judge the truth of the story, but what's known is that B.J. and D.D.'s respective schools had grown to be bitter rivals, and that B.J. resented his father for giving so much attention to other people's backs instead of his own family. It's also known that in 1913, D.D. Palmer was struck by his son B.J.'s car during a homecoming parade, and died a few short weeks later. The official cause of death was listed as typhoid, but suspicions remained long after both men were gone. We might never know the real story — unless, of course, a ghost tells us.

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There's a lot more to learn about the real history of fake sciences. Check out "Trick or Treatment" by Simon Singh and Dr. Edzard Ernst and discover the true stories of aromatherapy, acupuncture, reflexology, and more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 31, 2018

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