Monday, August 01, 2005

Drunkablog salutes: Palmer College of Chiropractic

When I was 13 or so I found a Readers Digest book on Chiropractic and its huckstering Founder, Daniel David Palmer. It was the first debunking of fake science I'd ever read, and it was eye-opening.

Unfortunately the book doesn't seem to exist on the internet, except maybe as a reference in a 1963 book on the Chiropractic profession's heroic battle against the Salk vaccine. But it was funny, mocking Chiropractic's factual claims about "subluxation" and the like while quoting The Founder's comical ravings about same.

Condensed or not, that Readers Digest book did two things: it led me to the popular exposers of capitalist mendacity Vance Packard (note subliminal advertising in the word "condensed") and Jessica Mitford, and it kept me from ever enjoying the ministrations of a Chiropractor.

It also gave me a permanent soft spot in the head for Palmer College of Chiropractic. So when I drove by Davenport a couple weeks ago, I decided to stop and see the place.

What is life?

One thing needs to be established right off: Daniel David Palmer, the Founder of Chiropractic and of Palmer School of Chiropractic (1897), was insane. Check out this letter from "Old Dad" to fellow chiropractors, for example, in which Palmer manages to combine endearing greed with plaintive megalomania:

I occupy in chiropractic a similar position as did Mrs. Eddy in Christian Science. Mrs. Eddy claimed to receive her ideas from the other world and so do I. She founded theron a religion, so may I. I am THE ONLY ONE IN CHIROPRACTIC WHO CAN DO SO.

Ye, Old Dad always has something new to give to his followers. I have much new written for another edition, when this one is sold. It is STRANGE TO ME WHY EVERY CHIROPRACTOR DOES NOT WANT A COPY OF MY BOOK.

And in an autobiographical sketch Palmer shyly reveals himself to be

. . . the originator, the Fountain Head of the essential principle that disease is the result of too much or not enough functionating. I created the art of adjusting vertebrae, using the spinous and transverse processes as levers, and named the mental act of accumulating knowledge, the cumulative function, corresponding to the physical vegetative function -- growth of intellectual and physical -- together, with the science, art and philosophy -- Chiropractic. It is now being followed, more or less, by 2,000 Chiropractors, and its use is being attempted by several other methods. It was I who combined the science and art and developed the principles thereof. I have answered the time-worn question -- what is life?

Obviously Palmer had no clue. Yet Ye, Old Dad has a bust on the campus of Palmer College of Chiropractic just the same.

The other kids called him "Fountain Head" too.

The Developer

When Daniel David ceased functionating in 1913, his son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer, "The Developer" of Chiropractic, had already acquired the family business. Bartlett, according to Joshua Lee Smith's anti-Chiropractic At Your Own Risk (1969), had had many problems in life, including a spectacularly non-idyllic childhood:

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].

Only one abnormal spine?

Apparently things were smoothed over, or something, because Bartlett, after undergoing rigorous (well, absolutely no) training, became a chiropractor just like dad. Unfortunately, his earlier training in hate persisted. As Joshua Lee Smith tells it,

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.". . .

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.

B. J. Palmer: No true bill, not even for running over D.D.'s little American flag.

Oh, here's B.J.'s wife, Mabel Heath Palmer. Couldn't find a whole lot about her except that she's

The First Lady of Chiropractic. Stirring quote:
"He's still moving! Hit him again!"

Research note: Many of the links in this story, it should be obvious, come from Stephen Barrett M.D.'s excellent site Quackwatch and his related site Chirobase (operated with Samuel Homola, D.C. [!]). Also heavily consulted was physical therapist Paul Lee's The Quack-Files. (And don't miss his blog, Confessions of a Quackbuster.)

Update: Stuff that didn't fit:

  • A scary chiropractor ad: "Mommy, my ears hurt."

  • A picture: Palmer Mansion in Davenport.

  • A fact: Palmer College tuition, 2003: $7000 per trimester.

  • Another fact: Palmer College has a rugby team.

  • An obituary: Robert Treuhaft, husband of Jessica Mitford and, like her, a truly diehard communist.

  • Update II: The capitalization of the word "Chiropractor" is done here in the same spirit as one capitalizes the word "Realtor."

    Update III: When you read the title of B.J.'s book, The Bigness of the Fellow Within, do you immediately think of Springfield's town motto, "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man?" Me too.

    Update IV: Initially misspelled Robert Treuhaft's name; corrected now.

    No comments: