The Legend of the First Chiropractor and His 'Cure' for Deafness

The Legend of the First Chiropractor and His 'Cure' for Deafness

Chiropractor works on patient on June 11, 1974.

SourceBoris Spremo/Getty

Why you should care

Because we all can get a little bent out of shape.

Hard of hearing for years, Harvey Lillard finally brought his problem to a doc he saw nearly every day. Little did the African-American janitor know that he’d soon be the poster boy for a budding new health profession.

At work in the Ryan Building of Davenport, Iowa, back in 1895, Lillard unburdened himself to Daniel David Palmer, a hands-on magnetic healer who ran a practice on the premises. Lillard explained that 17 years earlier, he’d stooped down to pick up a heavy item and felt something pop in his neck. Ever since, he told Palmer, he’d been deaf.

What followed was the first professional chiropractic adjustment, and Lillard proclaimed he could once again hear the ticking of clocks.

A self-taught practitioner with an interest in human anatomy, Palmer wondered about the power of the spine and the possible restriction of brain waves. With this notion in mind, he examined Lillard and found that he had a vertebra that was out of whack. He gently applied pressure to it, performing the first professional chiropractic adjustment, and Lillard proclaimed he could once again hear the ticking of clocks.

Variations of the story exist, but did the first chiropractic maneuver really cure deafness? “I have my doubts,” says Roger Hynes, associate professor of clinical sciences at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport and president of the Association for the History of Chiropractic. But, he adds, there are examples of vertebrogenic hearing deficits being improved by chiropractic. William Lauretti, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association and associate professor of chiropractic clinical sciences at New York Chiropractic College, says there isn’t really an anatomical explanation for a pop in the neck causing hearing loss, but notes that Lillard may have had congestion in his sinuses or some snapping in the Eustachian tube. Lillard told Palmer he could hear again, and whether it was true — or just something Lillard said to get Palmer to stop pushing on his neck — is a discrepancy lost to the annals of time, Lauretti says. “We really don’t know, but that’s how the story goes,” he adds.

While most regard Palmer as the first professional chiropractor, accounts of hands-on healing like this date back to ancient Greece. But that didn’t prevent the Iowa healer from becoming the target of ridicule, or legal woes. Like showmen selling “miracle cures” or Louis Pasteur peddling germ theory, Palmer was considered a “classic quack par excellence,” writes Rose Shapiro in Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All.

Daniel david palmer

Daniel David Palmer

Source Public Domain

But Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was similarly “touted as ridiculous fiction,” says Hynes, noting how health-related fields often get labeled as quackery when they’re new. “A lot of people were very skeptical of [Palmer’s] claims,” says Lauretti, perhaps because early chiropractors tended to boast of heroic results. But medicine of that era was admittedly hard to stomach: Gunshot wounds were often treated with leeches, and sterilization simply wasn’t done. President James Garfield might have survived his assassination, in fact, had doctors not rummaged around his wound with unwashed fingers. The environment “was brutal,” Lauretti says, and it wasn’t until the late 19th to early 20th century — just as chiropractic was getting started — that medicine began being regulated and licensed.

Indeed, chiropractic offered a “kinder, gentler health care,” Lauretti says. Palmer opened his first chiropractic school in 1898 and lived to see many more open before his death in 1913. From the beginning, they were progressive, promoting hands-on healing and welcoming significant numbers of women to their classrooms — females were often banned, either formally or informally, from medical schools well into the 1900s, Lauretti notes. But once medicine started being regulated, early chiropractors, including Palmer, were often arrested for not having licenses to practice health care. The legal challenge? “Demonstrating that what you were practicing was not medicine,” Lauretti says, explaining how early chiropractors distanced themselves from the medical community in order to stay out of jail.

Arrests and jail time didn’t help their reputation, but as chiropractic began to be regulated itself, that threat and disrepute faded. A bit. Today, it’s protected as a profession, “but we still tend to butt heads with the medical mainstream,” Lauretti says.

Modern chiropractors treat everything from headaches and back pain to mental illness, and Hynes says studies have shown it helps reduce health care costs. For Lauretti, the most rewarding aspect of his work is helping his patients lead happy, healthy lives, ridding them of discomfort from lower back pain with hands-on therapies, as opposed to risky surgeries or highly addictive painkillers.

As for those who remain skeptical of the field, Hynes and Lauretti wish more people would, like Lillard, give chiropractic a fair crack.

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