Dem Bones

Daniel David Palmer, born in 1845, was the inventor of Chiropractic. Although he had no medical knowledge, he had a small business in Iowa practising “magnetic healing”, which was fashionable in the late nineteenth century.

Palmer then developed a theory about the relationship of spinal alignment to illnesses. In his own words, “A subluxated vertebra … is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases … The other five percent is caused by displaced joints other than those of the vertebral column.”

Walking Duck DoctorSo, just to be clear, Palmer had decided that all diseases were caused by bone misalignment. Not bacteria, not viruses, not genetic faults; just bones out of line. That’s obviously absurd. Some problems certainly are caused by skeletal issues — back pain, even headaches sometimes — but I’m pretty sure that cholera and malaria aren’t.

But in fact, Palmer’s information came from a medical source, Doctor Jim Atkinson. Doctor Jim was unfortunately dead at the time, but apparently he had communicated the first information to Palmer during the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Camp at Clinton, Iowa. Subsequently, Palmer developed his theories himself under the unspoken “inspiration” of Atkinson. Or, to be more cynical, he simply made stuff up.

The degree of Palmer’s delusions are indicated by the fact that he explicitly compared himself to Jesus and Mohammed (and also Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy and Martin Luther). He was a prophet and had founded the new belief system of Chiropractic. It was religious and spiritual.

In spite of the ludicrous background and lack of medical rationale, Chiropractic didn’t disappear with the credulous nineteenth century. Quite the reverse: it’s one of the biggest and most profitable types of non-scientific medical practice today.

Although the Chiropractic organizations generally still make claims like Palmer’s to be able to treat many and various illnesses — or, to use Simon Singh’s words “happily promote bogus treatments” — the majority of people who attend a practitioner do so because of back pain. In a way, that’s understandable, because in a small proportion of cases, real medicine can’t help, and sufferers are desperate for relief.

Well, the placebo effect ensures that some will find relief, but there’s one thing you can be absolutely certain that Chiropractic will relieve you of: the contents of your wallet.


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