A Century of Organized Chiropractic

By P. Reginald Hug, DC, Past President, Association for the History of Chiropractic, and Felicity Feather Clancy, Vice President of Communications

Editor’s note: 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of organized chiropractic in the United States. To commemorate this milestone, the ACA – a direct organizational descendant of the first chiropractic group organized in 1906 – will publish a monthly series of articles to share our history. The first installment explains the climate that gave birth to organized chiropractic and traces the roots of today’s ACA.

In the early 1900s, the life expectancy of the average American was just 47 years, the average worker made $12.98 per 59-hour work week, railroads and wagons were the main method of travel … and chiropractors across the country were facing prosecution and even jail time simply because they were practicing and treating patients.

Fast forward to today, when many Americans can reasonably expect to become octogenarians, the median annual household income is more than $44,000, the Internet and e-mail have made travel obsolete in many instances, and chiropractic care--embraced by tens of millions of Americans--is increasingly integrated into federal healthcare programs and private insurance plans.

Luckily, the country and the chiropractic profession have changed exponentially since the turn of the 19th century. But it was in the challenging atmosphere of the early 1900s--professionally, socio-economically and environmentally--that the nation’s chiropractors found a way to band together to protect themselves from organized, political medicine.

Although the world has vastly changed since 1906, when the Universal Chiropractors Association (UCA) formed to legally defend chiropractors from medical prosecution, many of the underlying biases against the chiropractic profession and the resulting challenges remain very similar. In 2006, as we celebrate the centennial of organized chiropractic, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA)--a direct organizational descendant of the UCA--and other organized chiropractic groups stand as testaments to the sacrifices of those early chiropractic pioneers and continue their mission to preserve, protect and defend the chiropractic profession.

Organizing For Defense
It was in 1906, in the basement of Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, that B.J. Palmer, DC, and several other Palmer alumni organized the UCA. “The UCA was born of necessity: to provide legal defense services to chiropractors who seemed destined for grief at the hands of organized, political medicine,” writes chiropractic historian Joseph Keating Jr., PhD, in a May 6, 2004 article in Dynamic Chiropractic. But it was one chiropractor in particular who really spurred Palmer to action, according to Dr. Keating. B.J.’s own father, “Old Dad Chiro” D.D. Palmer, had already been convicted and jailed for “practicing medicine without a license,” and B.J. himself had been threatened with legal action for the same offense.

Although the founding of the UCA was not the first attempt at establishing a national membership and legal defense organization for chiropractors--that distinction is held by a group of Minnesota doctors allied with the American School of Chiropractic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa –the UCA was the strongest, most enduring and most successful at the time. The UCA’s founding secretary was B.J.—and he would hold this post for nearly 20 years. Originally, UCA membership was open to any chiropractor for a $5 annual fee (about $102 by today’s standards), which was not a bad deal for guaranteed legal defense if the chiropractor was sued for practicing medicine, surgery, obstetrics or osteopathy without a license. However, according to Dr. Keating, if legal bills “got out of hand,” UCA members were required to pay an assessment to cover legal costs.

And legal bills could get out of hand quite easily, considering the number of prosecutions. “To put things into perspective,” Dr. Keating says, “there were 15,000 prosecutions through 1931. In context, there were only 12,000 chiropractors.” In fact, one chiropractor, Dr. Charles C. Lemly, of Texas, was arrested 66 times for allegedly violating medical practice laws. He was found guilty only one of those times--sentenced to one hour in jail and ordered to pay a $95 fine--but 66 legal proceedings were costly, even in the early 1900s.

Yet chiropractors in the “old days” exhibited a trait still evident in today’s doctors: pluck. While their courage and resolve often helped them prevail in the legal arena, it also often aggravated the medical community and the authorities and caused them to get right back into “trouble” again, according to Dr. Keating. “They graduated school full of ‘piss and vinegar’ and confident that they had a solution to all the health care problems of the world,” says Dr. Keating. “They would advertise and immediately came into conflict with the local medical communities who had the power of the state at their disposal to squash the competition.”

But thanks to B.J.’s UCA, and attorneys such as Tom Morris and Fred Hartwell who “saved the bacon of the profession,” according to Dr. Keating, many chiropractors did prevail. From 1907, when he won the earliest known acquittal of a chiropractor charged with unlicensed practice, until his death in 1928, Morris was the chief legal counsel for the UCA and principal “defender of chiropractic.” Headquartered in LaCrosse, Wis., Morris’ law firm defended thousands of DCs charged with unlicensed practice and won a reputed 75 to 80 percent of its cases, especially when verdicts were rendered by a jury rather than a judge.

According to Dr. Keating, Morris was able to win such a large percentage of his cases by arguing that chiropractic was “separate and distinct”--a tactic that created much of the chiropractic philosophy that exists today. “That’s a theme that just percolates down through the decades,” Dr. Keating added. “Part of the defense was that chiropractors don’t diagnose, they analyze, they remove cause rather than treating the symptoms.”

At the time, Morris was something of a celebrity, and chiropractors would travel many miles to watch him argue cases in front of the court. “A number of the early court cases--if in easy railroad traveling distance--were circuses,” explains Dr. Keating. “Palmer and the student body would pack the courtroom.” And outside the courtroom, the chiropractic profession’s spirit was just as evident. “When the chiropractors were found guilty, they would adjust behind bars. The sheriffs would actually let the patients in,” Dr. Keating says. “When they were released they went right back to practice--in defiance of any injunctions.”

Chiropractic Dissention, Competing Groups
Although it was not the first chiropractic organization to offer this forerunner to chiropractic malpractice insurance, the UCA quickly grew and helped promote unity in the chiropractic profession. However, B.J. began to make it clear that only “specific, pure, unadulterated chiropractic” was welcome, which was the beginning of a downturn in UCA membership. The UCA covered a chiropractor’s liability up to a limit of $5,000 per case--but only if they practiced “straight” chiropractic. B.J. also attempted to demand that state chiropractic organizations exclude “mixers.” This “straight” vs. “mixer” controversy, along with B.J.’s promotion of a device called the neurocalometer (NCM) as an invention that could “pick, prove and locate the cause of all ‘dis-eases’ of the human race,” chipped away at B.J.’s popularity in the UCA.

By 1922, dissatisfaction with BJ and the UCA had grown so strong that a rival group – the American Chiropractic Association (at least the third so-named organization) -- was established by dissenters. This group was tolerant of broad-scope chiropractic and established its primary purpose as raising professional standards. The ACA declared that no one affiliated with a chiropractic school could serve as an officer or director in the organization.

The Birth of the NCA
After much controversy and dissention in the profession, B.J. lost his quest to exclude non-straights from joining the UCA. In 1926, B.J. failed to win re-election to his powerful position as secretary, withdrew from the UCA and created a new organization called the Chiropractic Health Bureau (CHB), which in 1940 became today’s International Chiropractors Association (ICA).

B.J.’s exit from the UCA opened the door to more cooperation with the ACA. In l930, the UCA and ACA merged to form the National Chiropractic Association—immediate predecessor of today’s American Chiropractic Association.

Next month: The Quest for Licensure


Keating J.C., Sportelli, Louis, Siordia, Lawrence, We Take Care of Our Own- NCMIC, Clive, Iowa, NCMIC Group Inc. 2004

Wardwell, Walter I. Chiropractic: history and evolution of a new profession. St. Louis:
Mosby, l992

Keating, J.C., ACA: Origins & Early Years, PowerPoint Presentation, 1999.