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Palmer, Daniel Davidlocked

(07 March 1845–20 October 1913)
  • Russell W. Gibbons

Palmer, Daniel David (07 March 1845–20 October 1913), founder of chiropractic, was born in a log cabin on the shore of Lake Scugog, about thirty miles west of Toronto, Canada, the son of Thomas Palmer, a rural Ontario teacher and postmaster, and Catherine McVay. Growing up on the harsh Ontario frontier when Upper Canada was still a crown colony of the British Empire, Palmer had few opportunities for advancement. He wrote that “I was cradled in a piece of hemlock bark” by his German-English father. In 1865, while the Civil War was still raging in the United States, Daniel and his older brother Thomas left home to seek employment in one of the port cities of the Great Lakes. According to Thomas Palmer’s autobiography, they walked for thirty days before reaching Buffalo “with their meager belongings packed in a carpet bag and two dollars borrowed from friends.”

After securing passage to Detroit and eventually Chicago, the brothers split, Thomas traveling first to Iowa and then to the Indian Territory, where eventually he became editor and publisher of the Oklahoma Guardian, the territory’s most popular newspaper. In 1866 Daniel settled in New Boston, Illinois, where he farmed and became an apiarist. According to his grandson, David Palmer, “Soon he was one of the largest bee-keepers in the United States and yearly sent large shippings of honey to New York City.” Daniel Palmer married Abba Lord in 1871 in New Boston. She died in childbirth the next year.

In 1874 Palmer married Louvenia Landers McGee, who he wrote was “a New Orleans gentlewoman and a widow of a Confederate officer who had left her war-torn and confiscated Louisiana plantation.” From this union, in their new home near What Cheer, Iowa, were born three children. Three years later, Louvenia Palmer died. For several years, Palmer owned a mercantile store in What Cheer before moving to Burlington and later to Davenport, where about 1885 he “established an office to practice natural magnetic healing on the fourth floor of the Ryan Building.” Palmer married Martha Henning in 1885, which may have ended in divorce. Palmer married again in 1888 to Villa Thomas. She died in 1905, and Palmer then married Mary Hudler later the same year. There were no children from these marriages.

For the next decade, Palmer embarked on a personal quest into the then undefined borders of medicine, the biological sciences, and health. The era of frontier medicine was disappearing, but alternative schools were still popular, with eclectic and homeopathic institutes and hospitals more numerous than those of the “regular” schools in the Midwest. Palmer, by his own account, studied under Paul Caster, who was teaching the magnetic healing concepts advanced by the German physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer, a pioneer in hypnosis.

Magnetic healing was a popular hands-on form of therapeutics, usually employed by nonmedical practitioners. Eclectic physicians were a botanical-based medical sect that was popular after the Civil War, while homeopathy, a German dissent to regular medicine, was based on the theory that disease is cured by remedies that produce in healthy individuals symptoms that resemble those of the sick. Palmer eventually rejected all these alternative teachings when he evolved his concept of spinal adjustment.

Although advertisements placed by Palmer in local directories between 1887 and 1891 announced that he “Cures with His Magnetic Hands,” it is probable that he offered a primary health service to his patients. One chiropractic historian, A. August Dye, wrote that turn-of-the-century druggists in Davenport recalled Palmer writing prescriptions, and an early associate reported that he also attended “accouchements” (obstetrics).

The burning controversy of early chiropractic—the allegation that Palmer had “stolen” its concepts from Andrew Taylor Still’s osteopathy—may never be resolved to the satisfaction of historians. Secondary accounts by the son-in-law of Still and by Palmer’s son Bartlett Joshua “B. J.” Palmer offer contradictory views as to Palmer’s being in Kirksville, Missouri, the seat of osteopathy, prior to 1895. Both founders apparently had met at a Clinton, Iowa, Spiritualist camp prior to 1906, but the proximity of Davenport and Kirksville—a day’s journey down the Mississippi and overland—suggests that Palmer also explored this new reform school of healing as well. Indeed, some of the terms familiar to early osteopathy emerged in Palmer broadsides.

In any event, Palmer dates the first adjustment to 18 September 1895 in his Ryan Building offices, administered to a black janitor Harvey Lillard, and later refined to an “art, science and philosophy” that was named “chiropractic” by one of his early patients, Samuel H. Weed, a Greek scholar and clergyman.

Involved in a near-fatal railroad accident in 1897 at Fulton, Missouri, Palmer wrote that “I then determined to teach the science and art as fast as it was unfolded.” The first school, known as the Chiropractic School and Cure, began in converted classrooms on the fourth floor of the Ryan Building, and the first two graduates (1898) were physicians—Andrew P. Davis and William A. Seeley. In time it became the Palmer Institute and Chiropractic Infirmary, where inpatients were housed, but with few students, an improbable future, and little more than an idea to sustain it. There were fifteen graduates by 1902, including his son B. J.

Palmer began what amounted to a decade-long wandering in 1902, leaving the school in the care of B. J. because of threatened prosecutions by both creditors and a now-disgruntled medical community who saw his institution as a cause for concern. The itinerant went to the West Coast, first to Portland, Oregon, where he began the Portland College of Chiropractic, then to California, where he conducted classes and clinics at Santa Barbara.

The schools were unsuccessful, and he returned to Davenport, where he was arrested, tried, and convicted by a Scott County, Iowa, court for practicing medicine without a license—the first of many such prosecutions that would embrace three generations of chiropractors. Difficulties over the management of the school were resolved by his son, who had shown a greater administrative talent, through an agreement that transferred whole ownership to B. J. in 1906. The transfer resulted in a bitter split between father and son, which would last until the senior Palmer’s death. B. J. Palmer incorporated the Palmer School of Chiropractic the same year. The senior Palmer again left Davenport after serving twenty-three days in jail, taking part of his osteological collection, his library, and a cash settlement.

Palmer settled in Oklahoma, then in Indian Territory, and following a brief mercantile career joined with Alva A. Gregory, a physician who had obtained a chiropractic degree from the Carver College of Oklahoma City, an institution launched by Palmer’s one-time attorney Willard Carver. Their venture, the Palmer-Gregory College of Chiropractic, was also of short duration. Palmer went to Oregon, where he opened another college. Again, Palmer’s disposition was not toward partnerships, and he resumed his own institution, the D. D. Palmer School of Chiropractic, which also failed. Soon he retired to private practice and a voluminous correspondence with his followers, detractors, colleagues, and friends.

It was during this 1908–1910 period that Palmer prepared his notes, diaries, correspondence, and unpublished papers and combined them with a new text for the 1,000-page tome that would be known both as The Chiropractor’s Adjuster and the Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic, published in Portland in 1910. Historian Chittenden Turner said that the book “flayed allopathy in particular, denounced the use of drugs and discussed the cure of almost every disease from abasia to zymosis.” In 1914 Palmer’s widow published his last book as The Chiropractor.

On occasion, Palmer would journey to Los Angeles and Davenport and be in residence as a visiting professor (“Old Dad Chiro,” as he preferred it) at the Ratledge College, the Davenport School of Chiropractic, and the Universal Chiropractic College in Davenport—the latter two affiliations causing still greater enmity between father and son.

Palmer’s journeys took him throughout California and the Midwest. In 1912 Frank Elliott, a pioneer graduate of the Palmer School who later became a radio executive, found him practicing on South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles and became a family intermediary between father and son, resulting in Palmer’s return to Davenport in the summer of 1913. After a brief reconciliation, the senior Palmer left B. J.’s residence and took rooms near the Universal College a short distance away, where he also gave lectures.

The accident that occurred during the school homecoming and Lyceum parade that August, in which Palmer was struck by an automobile erroneously said to have been driven by his son, gave rise to persistent rumors of patricide, largely inspired by B. J.’s own enemies and rivals. Three coroner’s juries were unable to return bills of particulars against B. J., and a regular physician who attended the elder Palmer at his death in Los Angeles two months after the accident testified that the cause of his death—typhoid fever—was unrelated to injuries suffered in Davenport. Palmer’s ashes resided in a huge bust along with that of his son on the campus of the Palmer College in Davenport for many decades before being moved to a family plot.

The world’s first chiropractor was somewhat of an enigma, with his public life in healing spanning fifteen years at the end of the nineteenth century and just more than the first decade of the twentieth century. Palmer’s followers considered him the classic innovative thinker whose concepts were rejected by mainstream science and medicine, suffering ostracism and even imprisonment for his beliefs. His critics—which included most of the medical community—dismissed him as little better than a pretender and a quack, purporting that his theory of the adjustment of the spine was a panacea for the ills of the human body.

Palmer’s absence of formal training in medicine and the basic sciences have not deterred all who have studied him. In 1985 a French historian of medicine, Pierre Louis Gaucher-Perslherbe, wrote that “Palmer was a splendid self-taught anatomist and physiologist … who did not use a single word that might be unfamiliar, defining it in precise detail.”


Palmer’s early correspondence, papers, journals, and manuscripts are in the B. J. Palmer Special Collections at the David D. Palmer Health Sciences Library, Davenport, Iowa. More information on Palmer and the history of chiropractic can be found in August Dye, The Evolution of Chiropractic (1939); Pierre Louis Gaucher-Perslherbe, La Chiropratique: Contribution à l’histore d’une discipline marginalisée (1987), and Chiropractic: Early Concepts in Their Historical Setting (1994); Russell W. Gibbons, “Evolution of Chiropractic: Medical and Social Protest in America,” in Modern Developments in the Principles and Practice of Chiropractic, ed. Scott Haldemann (1979); Verne Gielow, Old Dad Chiro: A Biography of D. D. Palmer (1981); Dennis Peterson and Glenda Wiese, Chiropractic: An Illustrated History (1995); Chittenden Turner, The Rise of Chiropractic (1931); and Walter Wardwell, Chiropractic: The History and Evolution of a Profession (1982). An obituary is in the Los Angeles Times, 21 Oct. 1913.