21 B.J. of Davenport: a Photo Odyssey
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Dynamic Chiropractic – July 16, 2001, Vol. 19, Issue 15

B.J. of Davenport: a Photo Odyssey

By Joseph Keating Jr., PhD
Once upon a time (and perhaps as recently as 30 years ago), the Palmer College of Chiropractic could claim with some confidence that it had trained as many as 75 percent of all the chiropractors in the world. And for more than half of the chiropractic century (1902-1961) a majority of the planet's DCs could claim (or renounce) B.J. Palmer,DC,PhC, as their mentor. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of his death at his winter home on St. Armand's Key in Sarasota, Florida. (The home is now a museum maintained by Life University's founder and former B.J. student, Sid E. Williams,DC). Some will say facetiously that B.J. never died (recently seen with Elvis in Brazil?), while others acknowledge that the profound and lingering spirit of B.J., for better or worse, still hovers over the profession. Love him or hate him, the self-styled "Developer of Chiropractic" was a singular character who shaped the profession in many ways ( in ways he intended and ways he did not).

But this article is not meant to set a somber tone. For those who would better appreciate the complex nature of the man, there are several serious account of his life (e.g., Keating, 1997; Palmer, undated), and at least one fictional work (Maynard, 1977). As well, the journal of the Association for the History of Chiropractic, Chiropractic History, has offered a great many articles on B.J.'s life during its 20 years of publication, as have other scholarly periodicals. But Palmer's is also a visual story, for he was born (1882) during the early years of photography, and made prolific use of the new imaging technology throughout his career. (Many of these photos are taken from B.J.'s biography; Keating, 1997.)

So sit back and relax. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, with a cloud of dust, a puff of smoke, and a hearty Hi-Yo-BJ!

In His Youth
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 1: This photo of the Palmer family, taken on 3 April 1890, shows young B.J. (age 8), his father, stepmother and two sisters. B.J.'s was a stormy childhood, reportedly full of abuse and neglect (Keating, 1997, p. 1).
Figure 2: Young Mr. Palmer returned to his parent's home in Davenport, Iowa for Christmas, 1900. It was a vacation from his job as an hypnotic subject with "Professor" Herbert L. Flint's travelling vaudeville show (Keating, 1997, p. 15). image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 3: By 1905, young Dr. Palmer (standing, with his hand on his father's shoulder) had several years of experience in operating the Palmer School of Chiropractic (PSC). This group of PSC graduates included: standing from left: E.E. Sutton (Class of '01), B.J. ('02), O.B. Jones (1900), and Solon M. Langworthy ('01). Seated from left: Oakley Smith ('99), Old Dad Chiro and Thomas H. Storey ('01) (Keating, 1997, p. 23).
Figure 4: By the time this photo was made (circa 1908) B.J. had taken over as president and owner of the PSC from his father following the latter's incarceration in Scott County jail for the unlicensed practice of medicine (Keating, 1997, p. 51). image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 5: B.J. married Mabel Heath on 30 April 1904; she soon completed the course in chiropractic under D.D. Palmer and took over financial management of the Palmer School. In 1906, she gave birth to their only child, David D. Palmer, and in future years she provided a soothing counterpoint to B.J.'s often abrasive style of interaction. Mabel H. Palmer, DC is affectionately recalled as the "Sweetheart of the PSC" (Keating, 1997, pp. 33-5).
Figure 6: One of only two surviving photos showing all three generations of the Palmer chiropractors. From left to right: Mabel Palmer, B.J., D.D., and Dave; probably taken in 1913 during D.D. Palmer's final visit to Davenport. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 7: This is a view of the parade of chiropractors (mostly DCs and students from the PSC and the Universal Chiropractic College) during August 1913 festivities. It was during this parade that B.J. Palmer, driving a car with Wisconsin state Senator Tom Morris at his side, was supposed to have struck his father down. Three subsequent grand jury investigations thoroughly exonerated B.J., but rumors that this nonevent led to D.D. Palmer's death in Los Angeles two months later would haunt the younger Dr. Palmer (and the profession) throughout his life (Keating, 1997, pp. 97-103).

President of the PSC & Leader of the Profession
Figure 8: This classic photo, probably taken in the late teens or early 1920s, shows B.J. (seated center) with the PSC faculty, including Harry Vedder, DC (standing second from left); Mabel Palmer, DC (standing third from left); dean of the PSC, A.B. Hender, MD, DC (standing fourth from left); Lee Edwards, MD, DC (standing third from right); James Firth, DC (standing far right); Reverend John Craven, DC (seated far left); William Heath, DC, Mabel's father (seated second from left); Stephen Burich, DC (seated second from right); and radiologist E.A. Thompson, DC (seated far right). The PSC reached an all-time high in student enrollments (perhaps as many as 3,000) in the years immediately following World War I.
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 9: Scene from a PSC assembly, circa 1910. B.J. is seated front row, center; Joy Loban, DC, chair of the PSC's department of philosophy, is seated fourth from left in front row. Loban subsequently left the PSC to organize the Universal Chiropractic College; commencing in 1913, he repeatedly sought against (unsuccessfully) grand jury indictments of B.J. for patricide (Keating, 1997, p. 71).

image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark

Figure 10: This scene from a banquet of the Wisconsin Chiropractic Association on 3 January 1916 includes B.J. (seated far right). Seated opposite B.J. is F.G. Lundy, DC, an officer in the Universal Chiropractors' Association (UCA), the protective society established at the PSC in 1906 for the purpose of defending chiropractors charged with unlicensed practice. Seated at Dr. Lundy's left is Tom Morris, LLB, lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, and chief legal counsel for the UCA. Palmer and Morris traveled extensively throughout the country to appear in court on behalf of the UCA and its members (Keating, 1997, p. 108).

Figure 11: Students and faculty of the PSC are seen in this photo taken in Mon-tezuma, Iowa circa March 1910. The group had traveled by train from Davenport to attend the trial of "State of Iowa vs. Corwin." It was common for supporters from the PSC to "pack the courtrooms" during trials of DCs for unlicensed practice. Dr. Corwin, a chiropractor and member of the UCA, is seen here standing front and center with the local sheriff (in light sweater). B.J. Palmer is seen standing fifth from left in back row (Keating, 1997, p. 54).
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 12: This cartoon image first appeared in the PSC's The Chiropractor in 1910, and later on the inside lid of boxes of The Chiropractor brand of cigars. It exemplifies B.J.'s notion of promoting chiropractic, the PSC and himself. A bare-chested, muscle-bound B.J. stands atop the planet (of which Davenport, Iowa is the center). With his right hand he reaches out to the sick and ailing, and with his left he fends off Death Incarnate (who carries a physician's black bag of poisons/drugs) (Keating, 1997, p. 78).
Figure 13: Palmer's methods of advertising were influenced by his friendship with iconoclastic Elbert Hubbard (left), Harvard University drop out, "free thinker," and well known writer for Boston's Arena Magazine, who established his Roycroft furniture factory and printing plant in Aurora, New York. Hubbard and his wife died when a German submarine sank the Lusitania in the early days of World War I (Keating, 1997, pp. 140-2). image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark

Love of Gadgets and Collectibles
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 14: Born in the "age of machines," Palmer was fond of technology. In this photo he rides in one the earliest "horseless carriages" in Iowa. By 1910 he had purchased an early x-ray machine for the PSC, and commenced development of the field he identified as "spinography" (Keating, 1997, pp. 66-7).
Figure 15: In 1922, B.J. brought radio to Iowa with his purchase of a small transmitter, and the formation of Radiophone Station WOC. Within two years he had increased the broadcasting reach of WOC to Europe, the Orient and South America, and became a well-known national celebrity. With his 1930 purchase of sister station WHO in Des Moines, he formed the Central Broadcasting Company, which was the "western link" of the National Broadcasting Company [NBC] (Keating, 1997, Chapter 9, pp. 225-46). image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 16: In 1924, B.J. officially unveiled a two-pronged, spinal heat-sensing device, the neurocalometer (NCM), which he claimed could find subluxations better than any chiropractor. Henceforth, he proclaimed, practice without an NCM must be considered unethical, and those who introduced competing NCM-like instruments would be sued for patent infringement. The device could not be purchased, but was available by 10-year lease from the PSC at a cost of more than $2,000 (a fabulous sum in those days). Reaction from the profession was rapid and largely negative (Keating, 1997, Chapter 9, pp. 225-46). Enrollment at the PSC plummeted, and Palmer was defeated in his bid for re-election to the secretariat of the UCA in August 1926; he had held this post since 1906 when he founded the protective society, until his resignation in 1925. In September 1926, Palmer organized the Chiropractic Health Bureau (forerunner of today's International Chiropractors' Association), over which he would preside until his death in 1961.
Figure 17: Palmer is seen here, circa 1945, operating an early version of the polygraph. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 18: Another Palmer innovation was the electroencephaloneuromentimpograph, a precursor of the electroencephalograph (EEG) technology in regular use by neurologists and brain researchers today (Keating, 1997, p. 279). Palmer apparently believed this device enabled detection of mental impulses from innate intelligence.
Figure 19: Part of B.J.'s famous knife collection can be seen here, circa 1945, obscured by the American flag and a DAV banner. Also memorable were his collection of Oriental art, which graced the B.J. Palmer Clinic gardens and the amusement center known as "Little Bit O'Heaven," and his collection of phallic symbols. Palmer's many witticisms were displayed on the walls of the PSC. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 20: This image of the Palmer family in India (right to left: B.J., Mabel and Dave) was taken during one of several world tours. B.J. authored a book describing his travels, 'Round the World With B.J. (Palmer, 1926), as did his wife, Mabel, who authored Stepping Stones (Palmer, 1942). B.J.'s travelogues were broadcast on Radiophone stations WOC and WHO in the 1920s and 1930s, and generated great interest in this era before easy global air travel.
Figure 21: Ever the showman, B.J. donned many colorful garbs throughout his career; here, "Big Chief B.J." poses for the camera. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figures 22 & 23: B.J. was especially fond of uniforms.
Figure 24: Even in his daily garb, B.J. chose to stand out from the crowd. His suits were specially made, and his flowing ties were part of his trademark. This photo was taken in Long Beach,CA, in 1931, during his attendance at homecoming festivities for the Ratledge College of Chiropractic. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark

The Final Years
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 25: B.J.'s life following the calamitous introduction of the NCM and his fall from his position as "majority leader" in the profession has been characterized as a "setting sun." But "B.J. himself" would never admit this, and his surviving empire gave him considerable grounds to ignore his declining authority. He is seen here circa 1945 (seated center, front) with the interns and staff of his PSC Clinic. Seated on his right is Lyle Sherman, DC, clinic director, after whom the Sherman College of Straight Chiropractic is named. Seated on B.J.'s left is Herbert Hender, DC, successor to his father, A.B. Hender, MD.
Figure 26: Dr. B.J. Palmer, age 73, is seen here with students during a lecture at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College on Bloor Street, Toronto in 1956. image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 27: The International Chiropractors' Association honored its founder in 1947 with this poster.
Figure 28: Officials of the International Chiropractors' Association and various chiropractic college leaders enjoy a breakfast meeting with B.J. at the Palmer mansion in Davenport during the mid-1950s (Keating, 1997, p. 283). image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark
image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Figure 29: A weary looking B.J. Palmer, as he appeared circa 1960. His final decade was "marked by increasingly severe illnesses," according to W. Heath Quigley, DC, MS, nephew of Mabel Palmer and B.J.'s personal chiropractor in his final years (Quigley, 1989). B.J. spent an ever increasing part of his time at his winter home in Sarasota, Florida, where he died of intestinal cancer on 27 May 1961. Soon after, his son, Dave, took over as president of the PSC, and renamed the institution the Palmer College of Chiropractic.


  • Keating, Joseph C. B.J. of Davenport: the Early Years of Chiropractic. Davenport IA: Association for the History of Chiropractic, 1997 (available from FCER at 800-622-6309)
  • Maynard, Joseph E. Healing Hands: the Story of the Palmer Family, Discoverers and Developers of Chiropractic. Revised. Mobile AL: Jonorm Publishers, 1977.
  • Palmer BJ. 'Round the World with B.J. Palmer. Davenport IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1926.
  • Palmer, David D. The Palmers: Memoirs of David D. Palmer. Davenport IA: Bawden Brothers, undated (circa 1977).
  • Palmer, Mabel H. Stepping Stones. Davenport IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1942.
  • Quigley, William H. The last days of B.J. Palmer: revolutionary confronts reality. Chiropractic History 1989 (Dec); 9(2): 11-9.

If your interest in chirohistory has been stimulated, then consider joining the Association for the History of Chiropractic (AHC). Founded at Spears Hospital in Denver in 1980, the AHC is a non-profit, membership organization whose goal is the discovery, dissemination and preservation of the saga of chiropractic. The AHC held its first annual Conference on Chiropractic History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. in 1981, and has held similar conferences each year since at various chiropractic colleges.

The AHC publishes a scholarly journal, Chiropractic History, in which chiropractors and interested observers contribute their expertise to telling and interpreting the rich lore of the profession. The journal, which is indexed in the National Library of Medicine's Histline, is published twice per year. Chiropractic History is distributed to all members of the AHC as a membership benefit. Membership in the AHC can be obtained by sending your name, address and check for $50 ($20/year for students) to the AHC's executive director:

Alana Callender, MS,
Executive Director
Association for the History of Chiropractic
1000 Brady Street,
Davenport, IA 52803 USA

If you'd like to encourage historical scholarship and preservation within the chiropractic profession, then consider making a donation, large or small, to the historical fund of the National Institute of Chiropractic Research (NICR). The NICR is a non-profit organization committed to conducting and supporting various types of research; in most cases, contributions are tax-deductible. The NICR historical fund supports the work of chiropractic historians and of centers for the preservation of historical documents. Preparation of this paper was supported by the NICR. Please make your check payable to:


Historical Fund
National Institute of Chiropractic Research
3714 E. Indian School Road,
Phoenix, AZ 85018 USA

Thank you.

Joseph Keating, Jr., PhD
Phoenix, Arizona

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