The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Palmer, Daniel David
(March 7, 1845–October 20, 1913)


Bartlett Joshua Palmer

(September 10, 1881-May 27, 1961)

were pioneers in chiropractic healing. Daniel David Palmer, known as D. D., was born in Port Perry, Ontario, son of Thomas and Katherine (McVay) Palmer. He married at least five times and had at least four children, although the records are incomplete.

    D. D. Palmer emigrated to the United States in 1865 and was a schoolteacher in New Boston, Illinois, until 1871. From 1871 to 1881 he operated a fruit and berry nursery and an apiary in Mercer County, Illinois. From 1881 to 1884 he operated a grocery store in What Cheer, Iowa. During the 1884-1885 school year, he taught school in Letts. At that time, he was instructed in magnetic healing by Paul Caster in Ottumwa. In September 1886 he opened his first magnetic healing office in Burlington. In 1887 he moved to Davenport and opened a magnetic healing office there. After his arrival in Davenport, he became a vocal opponent of vaccinations, drugs, and vivisection.

    On September 18, 1895, Palmer performed the first chiropractic adjustment, on Harvey Lillard, an African American elevator operator and janitor, who had been deaf for 17 years. Lillard was reportedly cured of deafness by vertebral subluxation adjustment and manipulation. There are several stories about how this cure came about. One claims that the adjustment was performed in an elevator; another claims that D. D. accidentally hit the man in the back with a book; and yet another claims that Lillard was adjusted in the Palmer Magnetic Healing office. Since all of these stories originate from Palmer himself, the actual circumstances are not likely to be clarified.

    Palmer's career in chiropractic had many ups and downs and curves. Throughout his life he engaged in flamboyant advertising campaigns, was constantly plagued by lawsuits, and feuded with his son, B. J., over virtually everything, from chiropractic methods to business practices. He coined the word "chiropractic" in January 1896 from two Greek words, " chero" (hand) and " praktik" (done).

    The first student at the Palmer School and Infirmary enrolled in January 1898, but Palmer was afraid that others would steal his ideas, and so was reluctant to expand the school. There was rivalry with A. T. Still, who started an osteopathic school in Kirksville, Missouri, at about the same time. The first four students, including Palmer's son, B. J., graduated in January 1902. Later that month Palmer moved to Portland, Oregon, without explanation and started another chiropractic school. He came back to Davenport in 1906 and formed a partnership with B. J., who had taken charge in his father's absence, and moved the school to its present location at 828 Brady Street. After losing a major trial in 1906, all property of the school and clinic was placed in the name of B. J.'s wife, Mabel Heath Palmer, and D. D. chose to serve out his sentence in jail rather than paying a fine. After serving 33 days, his wife paid the remainder of the fine, but B. J. refused to allow his father to set foot on the premises of the school and clinic. D. D. moved to Medford, Oklahoma, and opened a grocery store, then was affiliated with several chiropractic schools in Oklahoma, Oregon, and California. He died in Los Angeles in 1913.

    Bartlett Joshua Palmer was born in What Cheer, Iowa, son of D. D. and Louvenia Landers (McGee) Palmer. Throughout his career as a leader in the chiropractic field and innovator in radio and television, he was known as B. J. He married Mabel Heath, and they had one child, Daniel David Palmer (always known as David), who succeeded to the leadership of Palmer College of Chiropractic, as well as to being head of the radio and television conglomerate. He also was innovative and was one of the first to exploit the lucrative possibilities of cable television. His stations in Palm Desert, California, and Naples, Florida, expanded the family fortune by millions of dollars. Mabel Heath Palmer was a graduate of the Palmer School of Chiropractic and of Rush Medical College. As professor of anatomy and dissection at the chiropractic school, she took an active part in developing and expanding the profession.

    B. J. was trained in chiropractic in his father's clinic, and the two joined in operating the first chiropractic school. However, they disagreed about almost everything except the word "chiropractic" and soon parted company. B. J. continued to operate the Palmer School of Chiropractic for the rest of his life.

    In 1909 he initiated the first use of Roentgen rays, better known as X-rays, in chiropractic adjustment. By 1910 he had constructed an X-ray laboratory at the school, and invented the word "Spinograph" to describe the work. The use of X-rays split the chiropractic profession, and numerous competing schools sprang up. Undeterred, B. J. and a faculty member named Dossa Evans invented the neurocalometer, a device that measured temperature differential areas along the spine. By 1935 he had initiated the B. J. Palmer Chiropractic Research Clinic, amassing the world's largest collection of skeletal material, including full skeletons and countless full spinal columns.

    B. J. also became a very early convert to the potential of radio broadcasting. In 1922 he obtained a license to operate station WOC in Davenport (the call letters stood for "World of Chiropractic"), purportedly the second radio station licensed to broadcast in the United States. That venture expanded in 1929 to include station WHO in Des Moines, and was incorporated as the Central Broadcasting Company, an NBC affiliate. The first WOC broadcasts were made from the living room of the Palmer home at 828 Brady Street in Davenport. Broadcasts included lectures, musical programs, and many other programs. The main purpose of the radio station was to advertise the chiropractic school and clinic, and B. J. was remarkably successful at that. Most radio stations in the 1920s used 8 minutes of advertising for each 15 minutes of broadcasting. B. J. cut commercials to two 1-minute breaks for each 15 minutes of broadcasting. He then wrote a book, Radio Salesmanship, that sold through eight editions.

    As technology progressed, B. J. expanded his broadcasting empire to include television stations affiliated with WOC and WHO in 1947, and also expanded his radio stations to include both AM and FM. At the end of his life, he was experimenting with cable television stations, which his son David carried to a high art with Coachella Valley TV in Palm Desert, California, and Gulf Coast TV in Naples, Florida, both cable conglomerates.

    B. J. was a world traveler, a noted lecturer on chiropractic and other subjects, a successful pioneer in advertising, and an obsessive collector of works of arts and crafts from all over the world. His collections were opened to the public in Little Bit O'Heaven, an annex built behind the family home on Brady Street and expanded to include a greenhouse, waterfalls, a wedding chapel, and quartz ponds. B. J.'s collection of circus wagons and circus memorabilia was one of the greatest in the world, and after his death it became the nucleus of the Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida.

    Although B. J. may be best known to the public in connection with the chiropractic school and clinic, and with Little Bit O'Heaven, his work organizing the chiropractic profession and gaining recognition for legal chiropractic practice was his most important contribution. He founded the Universal Chiropractic Association, the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and the International Chiropractic Association, and became the first president of each of these groups. As more and more states recognized chiropractic and licensed its practitioners, the period of training became longer and involved more basic sciences. Palmer School of Chiropractic became the first of the many chiropractic training schools to organize an affiliate junior college and require an associate of arts degree for admission. After B. J.'s death in Sarasota in 1961, David Palmer accelerated the progress of that work.

    B. J. Palmer should be remembered as a pioneer in chiropractic healing and radio and television broadcasting. After his death, Palmer Enterprises came to encompass the chiropractic college and clinic, as well as the multiple radio and television stations. D. D. Palmer should be remembered as the "discoverer" of chiropractic, its first practitioner, and the first person to begin training other people in chiropractic methods.
Sources B. J. Palmer was the author of at least eight books, including Answers (1952), As a Man Thinketh (1926), Up from Below the Bottom (1950), Fight to Climb (1950), Evolution or Revolution (1957), Palmer's Law of Life (1958), The Glory of Going On (1961), and Collected Works (1949, 1951, 1957, 1958). D. D. Palmer wrote about the family in Three Generations (1967); The Palmers (1979); and "Remembrances of B. J. Palmer," Today's Chiropractic 19 (November/December 1990), 15–59. Obituaries for D. D. appeared in the Davenport Times-Demo crat, 5/28/1961; and Annals of Iowa 36 (1961), 157. See also Vern Gielow, Old Dad Chiro (1981); Joseph C. Keating Jr., B. J. of Davenport: The Early Years of Chiropractic (1997); Joseph Edward Maynard, Healing Hands (1977); and J. Stuart Moore, Chiropractic in America (1993).
Contributor: Loren N. Horton