The History of Chiropractic

The Birth of a Great Profession

Dr. D.D. Palmer

D D PalmerChiropractic began in Davenport, Iowa, along the banks of the Mississippi River in 1895 when a Davenport, Iowa, doctor posed a radically new kind of question. While other doctors of the day approached illness as if it were a sinister alien invading a hapless victim, Daniel David “D.D.” Palmer asked a question that changed everything. He wanted to know what caused health. Why did one person get sick while others living under the same roof, eating the same food and working the same way, remained healthy? If he could understand why they stayed healthy, he could begin to understand what was missing in a sick person. He concluded that sickness wasn’t caused by the virulence of the disease a person was exposed to, but had more to do with a weakness from within the body with regard to its ability to adapt to challenges.

The First Adjustment: September 18, 1895 Harvey Lillard

Lillard HarveyThe first spinal adjustment was performed by D.D. Palmer on Sept. 18, 1895, and resulted in an immediate improvement in a man’s hearing. This well-documented event involved Harvey Lillard, an African American entrepreneur. Dr. Palmer reasoned that a misaligned vertebra was causing pressure on Lillard’s spinal cord. He convinced Lillard to let him try to move the vertebra with a specific, gentle thrust. This he did, and Lillard’s hearing improved immediately. Within a few months he fully regained his hearing.

Dr. Palmer was so impressed by his new discovery that he began examining the spines of his other patients. On reducing supposed misalign vertebrae in his patients, Palmer noticed improved recovery in many of his patients. Palmer asked a friend, Rev. Samuel Weed, to help him give his discovery a name. After careful study, Rev. Weed came up with the name “Chiropractic” which he derived from the Greek words “chiros” (hands) and “praktikos” (pertaining to action). “Done by hand.”

A New Philosophy

What Dr. Palmer discovered was not a treatment for deafness, but rather a major new clinical condition affecting the body’s general ability to regain and maintain its own health. Long before scientists understood that all bodily functions are innately controlled from within the body by the brain and nervous system, D.D. Palmer was building a whole new paradigm, science and art based on the principle that disease usually began as malfunction and that spinal misalignments, called vertebral subluxations, could disrupt the body’s function by causing interference to the nervous system – the body’s control and communication system.

B.J. PalmerB.J. Palmer D.D. Palmer founded the first college of chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, to teach the practice of adjusting “subluxated” (misaligned) vertebra. However, the rapid growth of the school and development of the profession are attributed to the efforts of his son, Dr. B.J. Palmer. By all accounts, B.J. was both a scientific genius and a gifted promoter. Many firsts were notable among his accomplishments. He was the first to develop spinal X-ray procedures, a pioneer in radio and television broadcasting with the first licensed radio station west of the Mississippi River (the second in the entire country); ; he introduced thermographic spinal analysis; was a noted lecturer, world traveler and prolific author; and tireless in the scientific advancement of the chiropractic profession and development of chiropractic equipment. Until his death in 1961, B.J. presided over both the college and the profession, which had grown to include many thousands of practitioners and numerous other colleges throughout the country.

A Colorful Past

The growing profession was colorful not only in the character of its leader, but also in its struggle to gain legal status and to thrive despite internal disputes and attacks from politically entrenched medical groups. During the early half of the twentieth century, it wasn’t unusual to see doctors of chiropractic jailed for “practicing medicine without a license.” Stirred by philosophical differences, and in the absence of chiropractic licensure laws, it was easy for medical adversaries to level accusations against chiropractors in what was to become a prolonged “turf battle.”‘ Even as early as 1906, Dr. D.D. Palmer was jailed in Davenport, Iowa. Palmer created a circus atmosphere in the courtroom lecturing to his adversaries, the judge and to spectators. When given the historic opportunity to concede that chiropractic was a part of the practice of medicine, he refused to do so and chose to accept a jail term on principle. It wasn’t at all unusual to see a chiropractor’s patients picketing for the release of their chiropractor outside the jail, while the chiropractor was busy inside giving spinal adjustments to the police officers and other inmates alike.

As recently as 1991 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling finding the American Medical Association and several allied groups guilty of an illegal conspiracy to eliminate the chiropractic profession. The overt hostilities ended with a court injunction against the medical profession. Inter-professional relationships are becoming more positive and constructive.

Chiropractic Licensure

B.J. Palmer led the fight to gain licensure laws in the states while he battled within the profession to keep the chiropractic mission singular. A growing faction within the profession was altering the chiropractic mission by incorporating medical and naturopathic procedures and therapeutic goals into their practice. Intolerant of attempts to mix chiropractic with medicine, B.J. labeled the “mixers” as heretics while “straight chiropractic” was the label given to schools and practitioners who adhered to chiropractic principles. Despite the strife within and without, chiropractic achieved results and patient satisfaction. Acclaim followed and the profession flourished.

Chiropractic Today

Today chiropractic is a rapidly growing, respected, licensed profession in all 50 states with more than 15 colleges throughout the U.S and many colleges around the world. Chiropractic adjustment  today is a separate and distinct health care profession with 30 to 40 million patients worldwide.


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