Gdanski Chiropractic Clinic

Chiropractic History Part 2 : The Palmer Family

History of
Dr. Daniel David Palmer – The Father of Chiropractic
Dr. Bartlett Joshua Palmer – The Developer of Chiropractic

“I have never considered it beneath my dignity to do anything to relieve human suffering”

On March 7, 1845 Daniel David Palmer was born in Port Perry Ontario. Though his childhood was unremarkable, David and his brother both demonstrated great intelligence by completing the equivalent of eighth grade by age 11 and 9 respectively.

The boys’ parents, Thomas and Catherine were forced to leave Canada in 1856 after the failure of Thomas’ grocery business. So, taking their four other children, the Palmers returned to the States and left David and Thomas J. in Port Perry. This put an end to the boys’ education and the two children went to work in Charles Frederick’s match factory. It is unclear whether the boys lived on their own at this time or with their grandparents, but either way, it was a difficult life for the boys.

In 1865, the boys decided to rejoin their family in the States. They had little money but managed to pay their way by working at a number of odd jobs. D.D. took a teaching position upon reaching Iowa and soon married for the first of five times. In the 1880s, D.D. became interested in spirituality and the works of Paul Caster, a magnetic healer. Theory behind magnetic healing proposed that a magnetic field surrounded the human body and minor illnesses could be cured by influencing this force. D.D. moved to Davenport Iowa in the late 1880s. By 1887, he was known as a vital healer and soon became popular enough to open a 14 room infirmary.

D.D. Palmer’s own words describing his magnetic healing practice…

“In 1886 I began as a business. Although I practiced under the name of magnetic, I did not slap or rub, as others. I questioned many M.D.s as to the cause of disease. I desired to know why such a person had asthma, rheumatism, or other afflictions. I wished to know what differences there were in two persons that caused one to have certain symptoms called disease which his neighbor living under the same conditions did not have…In my practice of the first 10 years which I named magnetic, I treated nerves, followed and relieved them of inflammation. I made many good cures, as many are doing today under a similar method.”

As the above quotation states, Palmer was interested in finding the true cause(s) of disease. He wanted to know why two people who lived in the same house, drank the same water, breathed the same air and often had the same parents, could have two dramatically different constitutions, one being healthy and free of disease and the other sickly. Palmer felt that there must be something other than environmental factors influencing an individuals health. His theory, was that this internal factor was the function of the nerve system. On September 18, 1895, D.D. Palmer would have the chance to prove his theory.

September 18, 1895

It is said that on this fateful day, a patient named Harvey Lillard came to see D.D. complaining that he had lost his hearing some 20 years earlier when he bent over and felt something in his back “give”. Palmer found a lump on Mr. Lillard’s back and felt that he could re-adjust Lillard’s spine with his hands to rid him of the bump.

D.D.’s account of the first spinal adjustment is as follows : “Harvey Lillard a janitor in the Ryan Block, where I had my office, had been so deaf for 17 years that he could not hear the racket of a wagon on the street or the ticking of a watch. I made inquiry as to the cause of his deafness and was informed that when he was exerting himself in a cramped, stooping position, he felt something give way in his back and immediately became deaf. An examination showed a vertebrae racked from its normal position. I reasoned that if the vertebra was replaced, 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. I racked it into position by using the spinous process as a lever and soon the man could hear as before. There was nothing “accidental” about this, as it was accomplished with an object in view, and the result expected was obtained. There was nothing “crude” about this adjustment; it was specific.”

Palmer felt that Lillard’s hearing loss was due to a blockage of the spinal nerves which control the inner ear. This nerve blockage, in Palmer’s estimation, was caused by an irritation of the spinal nerves by a misaligned vertebrae. When Palmer corrected the misalignment by pushing the vertebrae back into place, the nerve pathways were reopened and thus Lillard’s hearing was restored. Today we know that the mechanism involved with spinal misalignments (The Vertebral Subluxation Complex) is much more complicated than originally postulated by Palmer. However, Palmer’s basic concept of nerve system interference adversely effecting health has held true over the last 100 years.

The term “chiropractic” was first coined by D.D. Palmer’s close friend, the Reverend Samuel H. Weed. The term chiropractic was taken from the two Greek words:

Cheir (Chiro), Meaning “Hand”

Praxis (Practic), Meaning “Practice”

Thus chiropractic means “Done by Hand”

With his new healing art, Palmer became very popular and his office was filled with the discarded crutches and canes of his patients.

In 1898 Palmer took on his first chiropractic student. That first year there was one student, in 1899 there were three and four in 1902. The course was six months in duration and cost $500. Among those four students in 1902 was D.D.’s twenty year old son Bartlett Joshua Palmer (know as B.J.). It is also interesting to note that five of D.D.’s first fifteen students were either M.D.s or D.O.s.

Despite this success, Palmer was mired in controversy. He had been charged by the state of Iowa for practicing medicine without a license and was jailed. Later D.D. was arrested on the same charge in Santa Barbara, California but was never jailed there. Though his school was popular, Palmer soon found himself in heavy debt as competing schools came on the scene.

In 1906, Palmer was again charged by the state for practicing without a certificate, and was found guilty. The sentence was a fine or 105 days in jail.

During his incarceration in Iowa, D.D.’s son B.J. took over the administration of the school and his wife Mabel Heath Palmer became heavily involved in both teaching anatomy and in the school’s operations.

Dr. B. J. Palmer – The Developer of Chiropractic

Palmer’s son , B.J. would become the most significant figure in chiropractic’s first fifty years. He took over the day to day running of the Palmer School and Infirmary of Chiropractic in 1902.

B.J. was a much more flamboyant spokesman for chiropractic than his father. It was during his tenure at the Palmer School that chiropractic would grow and fight its first battles with the medical profession. In fact, during 1903 B.J. would be charged with practicing medicine without a license. During the prosecution of his case B.J. would be forced to close down the school until sometime in 1904. The indictment was eventually thrown out, but B.J. would not be allowed to practice chiropractic, however, he was still able to teach it and in 1905 held the first official graduation from the Palmer School.

First Use of X-Rays

Besides writing the first chiropractic textbook and running the first chiropractic college, D. D. Palmer’s son B. J. pioneered in imaging technology. In 1910, he became one of the first health educators in the world to include the new, X-ray imaging technology or, as he called it, “spinography” into the Palmer curriculum. X-rays had been discovered in France in 1895, the same year chiropractic was born.


Even the events surrounding D.D. Palmer’s death were controversial. Invited to take part in a parade at the Universal Chiropractic College in Davenport Iowa, D.D. stepped out in front of a car while attempting to lead it. B.J. was driving the car and didn’t see his father until it was too late. A case charging B.J. with murder was thrown out of court. D.D. died several months after the accident in Los Angeles. According to Palmer’s death certificate, the official cause of death was typhoid. And so, even in death there is an air of mystery surrounding David Palmer.

Palmer’s Legacy

What Palmer left behind is the world’s third largest diagnosing health care profession in the world. Today, over 60,000 Doctors of Chiropractic are practicing in over 60 countries around the world. Research into chiropractic continues at institutions all over the world. In 1995, the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College celebrated its 50th anniversary, and what is now called the Palmer College of Chiropractic has been educating practitioners in Davenport, Iowa, for almost 100 years.