The History of Chiropractic Care

Technically you can say that the history of chiropractic care began in 1895. However, there is a strong historical precedent for utilizing spinal manipulation to heal. From the Ancient Greeks and Chinese to Mayans and Native Americans, numerous civilizations have recognized the importance of adjusting and caring for the spine.

Chiropractic Care in Ancient Times

Hippocrates, a renowned Greek physician who is often called the “father of modern medicine” (despite the fact that he lived from 460 to 357 BC), was a strong proponent of spinal care. He stressed the value of what would eventually become chiropractic adjustments and spinal manipulation in his writings. “Get knowledge of the spine, for this is the requisite for many diseases,” he urged. And while he might be one of the better known historical advocates for this form of treatment, he wasn’t the first.

When did healers first begin using spinal adjustments to improve health and wellness? That’s difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy. Historians have found ancient writings from China and Greece that discuss relieving back pain by manipulating the spine and extremities; these writings were created between 2700 and 1500 BC. The Chinese and Greeks were not the only ones experimenting with the health benefits of adjusting the spine. Indications have been uncovered that ancient civilizations in Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Babylon all used manual spinal manipulation.

On the other side of the world, the Mayans, Inca, and other Native Americans were healing with similar techniques. We may never know exactly when or where the idea of improving health with spinal adjustments was conceived, but we can trace the beginnings of modern chiropractic care to America in the late 19th century.

The Birth of Modern Chiropractic Care

Over the next two millenia, manipulative therapy fell in and out of favor with mainstream physicians. But by the 1700s, it was firmly “out,” most likely due to the epidemic-level proportions of spine-weakening tuberculosis present at the time.

However, in the late 1800s, Andrew Taylor Still (the father of osteopathy) and Daniel David Palmer (the father of chiropractic) made their entrance. Both men were what you might describe as “eccentric.” They had major issues with the state of mainstream medicine, and with good reason. In the 19th century the medical profession was unbelievably primitive. The rapid progress in other sciences during this time had little impact on medicine.

It would be more than fifty years before procedures like lobotomies and drugs like thalidomide and mercury were eliminated from mainstream medicine. And even though methods of measuring body temperature and blood pressure had been developed in the 1700s, medical professionals didn’t think they were even worth using until a century later.

Think that’s crazy? The most prominent physicians of the time were advocating “bloodletting” patients to treat fevers. Gosh, it looked like it worked; their feverish patients went from being hot and delirious to cold and euphoric. The approach was so popular that the instrument used to perform bloodletting, the lancet, had its name adopted by one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals

It wasn’t exactly a secret that the medical approach of the day was often more harmful than if they simply left the patient alone.

The Founding Fathers

A.T. Still

Arthur Taylor Still was an apprentice physician in Kirksville, Missouri, who found the field inspiring and was well aware of just how frequently ineffective (and sometimes downright harmful) modern medical practices were. After losing three of his children to a bout of spinal meningitis, he became totally disillusioned with mainstream medicine.

He left the medical profession and developed a treatment philosophy based on a theory that health was dependent on maintaining normal function of the musculoskeletal system and disease was the result of a restricted blood flow.

Beginning in 1874, Still began spinal manipulation to treat patients. As “the Lightning Bone Setter,” he combined his new theories on biomechanics with some pretty radical ideas on magnetic and spiritual healing. His drugless, non-surgical approach to the treatment of disease rapidly gained acceptance among the general public, and by 1892 he had established the American Osteopathic College.

D.D. Palmer

Daniel David Palmer, on the other hand, spent years as a practitioner of magnetic healing in Davenport, Iowa, “treating” ailments by manipulating a magnetic field surrounding the patient’s body.

In 1895, in the building where Palmer worked, a janitor mentioned to Palmer that while lifting a heavy object he had strained his back and heard a distinctive “pop.” He said he had been deaf ever since. On examination, Palmer noticed a vertebra that appeared to be “out of alignment.” He thrust on the vertebra and reported that immediately the janitor’s hearing improved. This was the first modern chiropractic adjustment on record.

Palmer began to reason that when a vertebra was out of alignment it caused a compression on nerves. He developed a philosophy based on the idea that altering nerve impulses affects organ and tissue function leading to disease. This became known as the “Law of the Nerve.”

The term “chiropractic” was first coined by D.D. Palmer’s close friend, the Reverend Samuel H. Weed. The term chiropractic was taken from two Greek words: Cheir (Chiro), meaning “hand” and Praxis (Practic), meaning “practice.” Thus chiropractic means “Done by Hand.”

Palmer was getting results with patients who had found dead ends with mainstream medicine and the chiropractic method of treatment grew rapidly. He actually intended to keep his techniques a secret until a train accident nearly took his life. His son B.J. convinced him to open a university in 1897 so that the practice could spread.

The bottom line is that Still and Palmer were revolutionary in identifying the musculoskeletal system as a key element of health. They recognized the body’s ability to heal itself and stressed preventive medicine, eating properly and keeping fit, instead of simply treating symptoms when they occurred.

Although Chiropractic was proving to be a successful way of healing the body, it was not readily acceptable. The medical community at the turn of the 20th century were afraid of Palmer’s success and began a crusade against Chiropractic care. They wrote letters to the editors of local papers openly criticizing his methods and accusing him of practicing medicine without a license.

D.D. Palmer defended himself against the doctors’ attacks by presenting arguments that he provided a unique service which they did not offer and pointed out the well known risks of the many medical procedures of that era. He also cautioned against introducing medicine into the body saying it was often unnecessary and even harmful.

In 1897, Palmer took on his first chiropractic student. That first year there was one student. Then there were three, and then four in 1902. The course was six months in duration and cost $500. Among those four students in 1902 was Palmer’s twenty year old son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer (known as B.J.). It is also interesting to note that five of Palmer’s first fifteen students were either MDs or DOs.

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, he was arrested on the same charge in Santa Barbara, California, but was never jailed there. Though the Palmer 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 of Iowa for practicing without a license and was found guilty. The sentence was a fine or 105 days in jail.

During his incarceration in Iowa, Palmer’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.

B.J. was a much more flamboyant spokesman for chiropractic than his father. During his tenure at Palmer School, chiropractic would grow and fight its first battles with the medical profession. In fact, during 1903, B.J. would also be charged with practicing medicine without a license, as his father was. 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 the Palmer School held its first official graduation.

B.J. Palmer was a prolific author and dynamic speaker who spoke to chiropractic audiences all over the world. He was described as having zeal and being a brilliant salesman and missionary when it came to chiropractic.

The practice of chiropractic continued to be met with significant hostility from the medical profession as it was an unfamiliar approach to healthcare. Many chiropractors were jailed for practicing medicine without a license. B.J. Palmer did much to increase the acceptance of chiropractic. He fought for the establishment of separate licensing and regulatory boards for chiropractic, allowing it to be a form of medical practice, but as a separate entity. He continued to develop the science, art, and philosophy of the profession from what was then (a loosely knit structure). He advocated the scientific advancement of chiropractic as the primary route to acceptance.

First Use of X-Rays

Besides writing the first chiropractic textbook and running the first chiropractic college, B.J. Palmer pioneered imaging technology. In 1910, under his leadership, chiropractic became the first healthcare profession to regularly use Wilhelm Roentgen’s invention, the X-Ray machine, which improved the science and accuracy of chiropractic care.

A Chiropractic Timeline

1895: In 1895, Daniel David Palmer originally began working as a healer in Davenport, Iowa. Over the next 10 years, based on his clinical observations, he develops a new approach to health care. He said that his new method began in September 1895, however he had not yet named the practice.

1896: Reverend Samuel Weed, a pastor and patient of D.D. Palmer, combines the Greek words “cheiro” (hand) and “praxis (practice) to create the word chiropractic for D.D. Palmer’s new profession.

1897: The first chiropractic student enters the Palmer School and Cure (later to become the Palmer College of Chiropractic).

1906: The Universal Chiropractor’s Association (UCA) is founded in Davenport, Iowa, to provide legal protective services to chiropractors charged with the unlicensed practice of medicine; the UCA will gradually expand its services to include educational and political actions.

1907: Shegetaro Morikubo, DC, a 1906 graduate of the Palmer school of Chiropractic, is the earliest known chiropractor to be acquitted of unlicensed practice by a jury in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. His legal defense will form the basis for future trials, “philosophy,” and legislation efforts.

1920: B.J. Palmer introduces radiology to chiropractic making the Palmer School of Chiropractic the first chiropractic program to teach the use of X-Rays.

1913: Kansas becomes the first state in the U.S. to specifically recognize and license the practice of chiropractic

1913: D.D. Palmer, founder of chiropractic, passes away at his home in Los Angeles. Death is due to typhoid fever, but his son B.J. will be unfairly accused of patricide.

1818-1922: After World War I ends, the U.S. government pays the tuition for returning veterans. Chiropractic college enrollments skyrocket. The Palmer School of Chiropractic achieves a student body of 3,000.

1930: Only 60% of the states in the U.S. legally recognize chiropractic and there are only 14,000 chiropractors in the world.

1933: The Council of State Chiropractic Examining Boards in the U.S. (later to become the Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards) is established with a mandate to provide unified standards for licensure.

1939: The Canton of Zurich, Switzerland, becomes the first jurisdiction outside North America to license the practice of chiropractic

1944: The Foundation for Chiropractic Education and Research (FCER) is established

1945: The National Chiropractic Insurance Company (today’s NCMIC Group, Inc.) is chartered by the board of directors of the National Chiropractic Association; it receives authorization to sell malpractice insurance from the Iowa Commissioner of Insurance in early 1946.

1961: B.J. Palmer dies in Sarasota, Florida.

1963: The National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (NBCE) is established in the U.S. to promote consistency and reciprocity between state examining boards.

1963: The American Medical Association organizes its Committee on Quackery with the explicit intent to contain and subsequently eliminate the chiropractic profession.

1972: The U.S. Congress authorizes payments to chiropractors for services rendered to Medicare patients

1974: Louisiana becomes the 50th American state to authorize the practice of chiropractic.

1976: Chiropractors Chester A. Wilk, Patricia A. Arthur, James W. Bryden, Stephen C. Lumsden, and Michael P. Pedigo file suit against the AMA and several other defendant organizations and individuals for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

1987: Judge Susan Getzender ruled in favor of the chiropractic plaintiffs in the Wilk vs. American Medical Association lawsuit resulting in an injunction against the AMA. This allowed for cooperation between medical and chiropractic doctors in education, research, and practice in the U.S.

1990: The final appeal in the Wilk vs. American Medical Association lawsuit was denied, thus the injunction against the AMA remained. 

1998: This was the first time that there were more chiropractic schools outside the U.S. (17) than inside the U.S (16).

1999: The U.S. Congress authorized the Veteran’s Administration to begin providing chiropractic care for American veterans.

2000: Chiropractic care was made a permanent benefit for all U.S. uniformed service members.

Final Words

Chiropractic and its leaders have changed and evolved through the years, but the principles of this distinct healing method are still the same as they were over 100 years ago. Essentially, the body is a masterfully created, self-healing organism. The nervous system controls and coordinates every organ and tissue. The relationship between the spine and the nervous system is a predictor for the state of health. Find the interferences, correct them, and the body will always move toward health.

Today, Chiropractic is licensed as a distinct healthcare profession in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and dozens of other countries throughout the world. There are over 35 Chiropractic colleges in the world including ones in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Today’s recognition and acceptance of chiropractic care is primarily based on the strength of the growing body of scientific research, which all started from Palmer’s commitment to make Chiropractic scientific. The positive results: chiropractic care has given health and well-being to millions of satisfied people and continues to add credence to what one man started in 1895. Chiropractic is now the world’s largest, drugless, and fastest growing health care profession.