Can Chiropractors Cure? (1943)

Millions are deluded, for scientists call this f
ish-peddler's invention sheer quackery

Albert Q. Maisel

There are nearly 30,000 chiropractors in the United States today—men who treat various serious ills on the theory that the seat of all troubles lies in the spine. If you suffer from boils or bronchitis, from dyspepsia, dysentery or diphtheria, a chiropractor will be willing to "cure" you by pressing your backbone and "adjusting" an alleged "subluxation'' of some vertebra.

In most states these men who have raised back-slapping to a fine art arc actually licensed lo heal the sick and call themselves "Doctor." Even if you live in one of the four states in which chiropractors are illegal, you can find them practicing openly and tooting their wonderful "cures'' by advertising in phone books and newspapers.

This "profession'' started in 1885, when a group of traveling ''magnetic healers" worked the little town of Davenport, Iowa. Patients paid their money and were told they were cured by animal magnetism of whatever it was it another thought. But one young grocer and fish peddler, D. D. Palmer, returned to his little store full of wondrous and amazing thoughts. Locking the doors of his grocery, Palmer announced that he too was surcharged with animal magnetism. He opened an office and for ten years treated his neighbors—those who didn't regard him as a quack.

One day a janitor came to him for treatment and the "great science" of chiropractic was born. His son, B. J. Palmer, testifying years later in a Wisconsin court, described this wonderful accident:

Harvey Lillard came in thoroughly deaf. Father looked him over, and there was a great subluxation of the back. Harvey said he became deaf within two minutes after that popping occurred in his spine, and had been deaf for 17 years. Father thought of this thing, which was that if something went wrong in the back and caused deafness, then reduction of this subluxation should cure it. The bump was adjusted, and within ten minutes Harvey regained his hearing.

Young Palmer was not embarrassed when the cross-questioning attorney asked how the janitor managed to hold a conversation while still deaf. Nor did he have any trouble in proving that a spinal kink could cause blindness or deafness despite the fact that these nerves do not pass through the spine. He pointed out to the gasping court that the trouble was that the standard systems of anatomy showed only one set of nerve paths, whereas the chiropractors had discovered a second system of nerve paths "not recorded in any anatomy I know anything of." There is some doubt as to whether the elder Palmer actually discovered chiropractic in this way. Some think he merely gave a new twist to the doctrines of an earlier healer, the inventor of osteopathy, "Dr." Still. But there is no doubt that the son, "B.J.," developed chiropractic from a single, narrow-gaged idea into a "profession" that taps the public for more than $60,000,000 annually. He also developed a business which has grossed many millions, including the fountainhead school of the cult at Davenport, a radio station and an agency for the sale of chiropractic equipment and high-powered advertising material.

"B. J." was typical of most of the early chiropractors—and the recent graduate—in that he had little if any education thought to be essential for those who style themselves "Doctor." His formal education ended with the ninth grade, yet he boasted of the degree of Doctor of Chiropractic and of Philosopher of Chiropractic. The second title was conferred upon him by the Palmer School, of which, by coincidence, he was both president and owner.

The school started out-in 1895—with a two weeks' course for $500 cash. As competing schools were established by the score, the course was lengthened. The price was reduced until, in 1910, a student could obtain 12 months of instruction for $150. Hundreds of chiropractors still in practice achieved their right to call themselves ยท'Doctor" after such short courses. Today Palmer turns out chiropractors after only 18 months of instruction, although he calls it "three collegiate years" unbroken by vacations. Speed and low cost, were, of course, the major attractions of the new cult-attractions which "B.J." frankly featured in his high-powered advertising literature. He painted a glowing picture to poorly educated but ambitious individuals of a cheap way to acquire quickly a good income and prestige. "Do you want to follow manual labor or a profession'?" his ads asked. "The common labor field is crowded. There are many persons who want to do hard work. Let those who are anxious have it. You fit yourself for a profession." "Our school," he explained, "is on a business not a professional basis. We manufacture chiropractors."

Soon the doctors Palmer manufactured began to discover that the "profession" of teaching chiropractic might prove even more attractive and lucrative than chiropractic practice. Consequently hundreds of colleges of chiropractic sprang up. Many of them offered correspondence courses. Few had serious entrance requirements. Those that required a high school graduation as an entrance requirement seldom quibbled when offered "the equivalent." Age, business experience or merely "'maturity" sufficed to qualify students who could lay cash on the barrelhead.

One witness before a U.S. Senate committee asserted that there were more than 200 chiropractic schools at one time in Michigan. 'They would start up with anything," he testified, "in a back parlor, for instance. We had a man on East Capitol Street who was advertising to teach chiropractic in 30 days, for $10." By the late 1920s, graduates of these schools, finding the competition increasingly tough, handed into societies and swarmed on state legislators, demanding higher educational requirements for new chiropractors. What they wanted, of course, was legalization of their own status. Hundreds had been prosecuted and convicted for practicing medicine without a license and all of them worked constantly on the narrow edge of this threat.

They were bitterly opposed by the medical profession, which regarded them as ignorant charlatans. But the chiropractors were skillful politicians. In state after state laws were passed. Invariably a so-called "grandfather clause" provided that those chiropractors who were already practicing would be licensed either without examination or following a purely formal one. In effect, the least educated chiropractors, were licensed—and at the same time protected—against growing competition. Only four states have so far resisted this drive: New York, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Louisiana. In New York alone 1,800 chiropractors practice illegally but openly, even advertising in newspapers and classified telephone directories.

In 18 states so-called Basic Science Laws are in effect. Under these acts, all who seek to practice healing—medical doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, naturopaths and others—must pass examinations in the basic healing sciences of biology, pathology, anatomy and physiology. Healing theories receive equal treatment on the simple premise that anyone who proposes lo treat the sick should know the basic essentials of the body's mechanisms.

The effect has been to bar new chiropractors almost completely from the field and to expose the inadequacy of their supposedly "improved'' training. From 1927 to 1944, nearly 20,000 medical students took these exams; 87 per cent passed. In the same period only 367 chiropractors dared to try the tests, and only 28 per cent managed to pass.

Yet the chiropractors and their schools yearn for prestige and respectability. They have a newly established Chiropractic Research Foundation, which their letterhead calls "A Million Dollar Humanitarian Project." They have a National Chiropractic Association, complete with a "Director of Education'' who is supposed to set standards for approved chiropractic schools. In 1941 this director, John J. Nugent, reported frankly on the status of chiropractic schools: "Our schools," he wrote, "presented a museum of diversity—a conglomeration of ideas, practices and prejudices as diversified as the individuals who controlled their destinies." Nugent also stated in his report: "The chiropractor is not accepted on the same plane with other professions; we lack the cultural and educational background that even the laborer expects to find in a professional man."

Since 1941, Nugent's committee has approved or recognized four schools. One of these is the National Chiropractic College of Chicago, with a prewar enrollment of approximately 350—comparable in size to the average medical school. Its faculty, according to testimony before a U. S. Senate committee, consists of only 11 members. All are listed as "professors," including at least one who does not hold a degree, not even Doctor of Chiropractic. By comparison—in the same city of Chicago—the University of Chicago School of Medicine has a faculty of 215, Loyola University School of Medicine has 348, the University of Illinois College of Medicine has 500, and the Northwestern University Medical School has a faculty of 608. Yet the graduates of this "national college" receive the right to practice on the sick and call themselves "Doctor."

Another "accredited" college has the high-sounding name of Institute of the Science and Art of Chiropractic. The president of this school and at least two of the faculty members had previously been convicted of violating the laws of the state of New York. The other two "approved" schools are the Western States Chiropractic College of Portland, Oregon—listing only 13 faculty members in its catalogue but offering a choice of D.C., N.D., B.T.A., and B.T.Sc. degrees—and the Lincoln Chiropractic College, of Indianapolis, with a grand total of nine on the faculty.

Significantly, the Palmer School is not on the approved list. Old "B.J." will have nothing to do with such nonsense. The idea of a four-year chiropractic course shocks and horrifies him. With a frankness embarrassing to those who seek "respectability," he thunders: "Give me a simple mind that thinks along single tracks, give me 30 days to instruct him along correct and efficient methods, and that individual can go forth on the highways and byways and get more sick people well than the best, most complete, all around unlimited medical education of any medical man who ever lived."

While the politically minded "big shots" argue about schools and laws, the average chiropractor continues to ply his trade, "reducing subluxations" of the vertebrae for almost every imaginable ailment. If he is smart he avoids patients with contagious diseases, or those who obviously require immediate surgical treatment. But enough of them err in trying to cure any case that comes along to dot official records with a long and growing list of deaths and injuries.

I have before me a group of records from the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. One reports the case of a 10-year-old boy with appendicitis. A chiropractor treated him for "stomachache." He died. Another is that of a 5-year-old girl given an "adjustment" for "sore throat." She died, too . . . of diphtheria. Still another was a woman with an ectopic pregnancy. In pain, she sought a chiropractor, who gave her an "adjustment," ruptured the pregnant fallopian tube and brought about her death. A fourth case was that of a prominent attorney, who suffered a headache which autopsy disclosed was caused by a small hemorrhage at the base of the brain. But he didn't die of that hemorrhage. Death was caused by a broken neck, result of a chiropractic ."adjustment" that was supposed to relieve the headache. Similar cases might be cited from the records of courts, district attorneys and medical examiners throughout the country. Yet such reported deaths represent only a tiny fraction of the harm done by ignorant men who treat serious conditions which they neither recognize nor understand. Thousands who do not die may still be harmed while they seek relief for curable conditions from men who have only one cure for all ills—the "reduction of subluxations." For the essence of chiropractic theory is that disease is caused by a "constricting pressure on either the spinal nerves or spinal cord," a pressure caused by a "subluxated"—slightly out of line—vertebra.

In fact, B. J. Palmer and other chiropractors have testified there is no need for the chiropractor to diagnose a disease; that knowing what it is that ails a man may even be a handicap. Palmer, for instance, made the following statement on the witness stand: "A person comes to us without telling us his trouble. The chiropractor needs to know nothing about the case from a physician's standpoint: it is immaterial. . . . It is not essential the chiropractor should know what the patient said he had, but you can adjust the current for it, running into the organ and the patient will become well."

If chiropractors at least agreed among themselves, one might feel that they had arrived at a possibly effective means of cure, one that somehow worked even though they can't explain it to scientific men. Actually, however, there are half a hundred different chiropractic schools of thought. Some favor the "straight thrust. " Others swear by the more subtle "universal thrust."

In Minnesota they have even developed a special spinal adjustment that calls for the use of a mallet. It is said that the patients can be heard four blocks away when the Minnesota Method is applied by a red-hot practitioner. "B.J.," for instance, once testified that diphtheria was the result of a subluxation of the sixth dorsal vertebra. But the textbook, Infectious Diseases, used by the National College of Chiropractic, makes no mention of the sixth dorsal vertebra as a site for adjustment in cases of diphtheria. Instead it recommends giving attention to the third, fifth and seventh cervical vertebrae, the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, tenth and twelfth dorsals, and the fifth, ninth, tenth and eleventh cranial nerves—everything from the brain to the buttocks except "B.J.'s" all-essential sixth dorsal.

Palmer has testified that scarlet fever would occur only in the presence of a "subluxation between the sixth and twelfth dorsal vertebrae. But Wells and Janse, authors of the National Chiropractic College textbook, say, "Particular attention must be given to the second lo fifth cervicals and the tenth to twelfth dorsals.'' Palmer would forget about the cervicals entirely. Well s and Janse would forget about the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth dorsals. Both claim that their particular adjustments arc the right way to cure scarlet fever.

Palmer testified, in a Canadian court, that syphilis can be cured by reducing a subluxation. Chiropractor James Greggerson, testifying in a New York court, however, said that be couldn't cure syphilis by "adjustment.'' So did Chiropractor Francis T. Shyne. And chiropractors Wells and Janse significantly omit syphilis entirely from their book on infectious diseases.

Chiropractors, as drugless healers, reject the use of serums, vaccines, inoculations, the sulfa drugs and penicillin as so much nonsense.

One must wonder how thousands of chiropractors manage to have patients at all. Yet many of them have full waiting rooms and extremely lucrative practices.

The answer lies, in part, in ignorance. Patients think the chiropractor is some special kind of doctor, on a par in training, background and experience with the average medical physician. Others arc desperate people clutching at any straw: people who talk of how "the doctor s gave me up." Still others—the hypochondriacs, the neurotics, the lonely—actually achieve some benefits under chiropractic treatment. These people blossom under attention. They are the sort that busy doctors tend to dismiss in favor of the acutely sick. In the sympathetic chiropractor many find a crude but often effective psychiatric service. There was, for example, the patient who testified—in a chiropractor's ad in the Chicago Tribune—that "Before taking chiropractic and electric treatments I was so nervous that no one could sleep with me. After six treatments, anybody can sleep with me.''

If these were the only cases the chiropractors treated, they could hardly be considered a public menace. It is when they apply their weird doctrines lo patient s with curable diseases - early cancers, tumors, and the host of infectious diseases from anthrax to whooping cough-that they endanger not only the individual patient but the general public welfare. For an infectious patient who is not promptly treated bv the best modern technic menaces all who come into contact with him.

To a limited degree, legislation can help minimize this danger by making chiropractic education conform to at least a minimum basic standard and by limiting and regulating the practice. No law has ever been written that can keep people from patronizing chiropractors—or, for that matter, palmists, witch doctors or voodoo cultists.

Final answer for the individual—the man with an ache in his back, the woman who "feels run down," the parent whose child is running a strange fever—must lie in an understanding of the limitations of any school of healing which separates itself from most modern discoveries and from the main stream of scientific thought. As a whole, elimination of this danger to the nation's health seems to lie in education and in more and better doctors. Doctors who, by one device or another, can be made available for all who need them, especially the poorest and least privileged.


This essay originally appeared in 1946 in Hygeia, a magazine published by the American Medical Association.

This article was posted on July 29, 2018.

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