In the turn-of-the-century United States, women were among the first chiropractors. In a period when established medical schools barred women from entering because of their gender, chiropractic and other “irregular” medical practices provided a more welcoming home for women interested in health care and a professional career. Immediately before and during World War I, chiropractic schools increased their marketing to women students, as current and prospective male students enlisted in the military or returned to the workforce or the family farm.
Schools emphasized women’s duty to serve their country and to save the field of chiropractic while men were unable to practice. After the war, however, fewer women became chiropractors for a variety of reasons, including federal school funding for male veterans, the spread of licensing laws and required exams, and the rise of chiropractic assistant jobs.
The Discovery and Spread of Chiropractic
D. D. Palmer discovered chiropractic in 1895 in Davenport, IA, and was training new chiropractors by 1897. Chiropractic began as an alternative medical practice in which practitioners used their hands or occasionally various instruments to manipulate or adjust patients’ spines to improve alignment and remove nervous system blockages, allowing the body to heal itself from all diseases and conditions. Now chiropractic is an evidence-based health care practice focusing on hands-on spinal manipulation to address musculoskeletal and nervous system problems and the effects of such problems on overall health. It began and remains opposed to the use of drugs or surgery in most cases.
Chiropractic quickly spread to other states, where it joined more established “irregular” medical practices or sects, such as magnetic healing (a type of energy healing), osteopathy, homeopathy, and eclectic medicine. Many early chiropractic schools offered impromptu apprenticeships instead of classroom programs. These attracted students who wanted a profession that promised quick training, remarkable cures, and high earnings. Such offers appealed to women who sought to join a profession or switch from a more demanding and less remunerative career to one with greater promise. Irregular practitioners also offered shorter and easier training than regular medical schools for anyone who couldn’t afford or didn’t want to wait to go into practice.
The irregulars had no problem taking women students. Most regular medical schools accepted few or no women, and women-only regular medical schools were scarce and given little respect. In 1897, Palmer stated that, “Every man and every woman who can cure is divinely ordained to heal, and their duty to God and humanity demands that they do it.”1 Given irregular medicine’s openness to women practitioners, women were among the earliest chiropractic students and practitioners. Two women are among the seven graduates on one list of the first two years of Palmer’s graduates, and women made up 20-50% of Palmer School of Chiropractic (PSC) class members from 1895 through 1905.2
Palmer may well have believed women to be perfectly competent practitioners, but it was also just good business sense to reach out to any (white) student able to pay, regardless of sex or gender. (This apparent open-mindedness didn’t apply to African-American students, unfortunately.) The Palmers were experts at marketing and never missed an opportunity to promote the business of chiropractic — and chiropractic was a business. Most patients in the late 1800s didn’t distinguish between “regular” medical doctors (also known as allopaths or what we call MDs today) and irregular ones. For them, a good doctor was one with a successful practice rather than a particular educational background.3 Both regular and irregular doctors, though, saw a big difference. The regulars were particularly unhappy about the existence of irregular medicine.
By the time chiropractic started, regular practitioners were fighting back. In 1897, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) called osteopathy a “quackish system” and irregular medicine patients “degenerates.”4 Early on, JAMA viewed chiropractic as “too preposterous to consider seriously,” but a 1913 editorial called chiropractic “sheerest quackery.”5
Some jurisdictions were arresting chiropractors for the unlicensed practice of medicine by 1905. States also introduced licensing laws and, later, basic science examinations. Licensure and exams were ways to “control some forms of cultism” and put a check on the previously unlimited number of people tacitly allowed to practice chiropractic, and were not signs of mainstream acceptance of irregular medicine.
Many women trained as chiropractors during the first decade of the century. Some of them enrolled at chiropractic colleges with their husbands, getting shared or discounted tuition. At the PSC, $100 covered both husband and wife for a twelve-month program in 1908.6 The PSC explicitly framed husband-wife dual enrollment in traditionally gendered terms, with the wife as the helpmeet to the husband, who was primary practitioner and business owner, and not as an independent practitioner.7 Many of the women enrolled at the PSC, though, were studying on their own. They likely felt much more welcome in this alternative space than they would have in a regular medical school. The PSC certainly welcomed the bump women provided to their enrollment numbers.
Chiropractic Schools & World War I
While regular medicine’s stance towards chiropractic became more aggressive in the 1910s, the First World War tempered this growing crackdown on irregular medical practitioners. As the war loomed, many professional schools, including chiropractic schools, began advertising directly to female students in late 1917. With the build-up to the war, schools realized they’d need to fill their class seats. The PSC published two related Chiropractic for Women books in 1917 to recruit women students, including a form letter sent to women chiropractors asking for their support.8
The letter noted that many current practitioners would be sent to the war, some of whom would not return, and said, “Chiropractic must not, cannot die … YOU can save Chiropractic for the people, not only now but for the future.”9 This call to women chiropractors demonstrates the PSC’s dedication to chiropractic as a business as much as a healthcare profession.
The first PSC book contains 97 letters from women chiropractors describing their experiences as practitioners and exhorting other women to become chiropractors themselves; the second is a shortened version of the first. “It is up to the women to protect the home while the men are at the front, and there is no better time than now to fit yourself to become a Chiropractor [sic] to keep the people at home in a healthy state. I do not believe that the women of the land can be of better service to mankind in anything else,” wrote Esther S. Strand, of Minneapolis, MN. Her sister-in-law, Minnie C. Strand, also sent a letter. The book may have been effective: women graduates increased from 34% between 1911 and early 1918 to 48% from mid-1918 through early 1919.10
Chiropractic After the War
After the war ended in 1918, the federal government began considering how to rehabilitate disabled ex-soldiers. The Federal Board for Vocational Education provided funding for veterans’ education to five chiropractic colleges, including Minnesota’s St. Paul College of Chiropractic (SPCC), in 1921.11 The SPCC targeted advertising to veterans earlier, too, with a 1920 ad likening the ex-serviceman’s personal post-war rehabilitation to that of the nation.12
This vocational education funding allocation dismayed mainstream medical doctors. A 1922 article regarding chiropractic college funding in American Physician asked, “Is the government letting down the bars to quackery?,” noting that the Board’s own bulletin stated, “Whenever possible men should be dissuaded from taking up this work.”13 This was a generic use of “men.” It didn’t mean that women should be chiropractors rather than men; rather, no one should be a chiropractor.
Starting in the 1930s, the field of chiropractic funneled women into chiropractic assistant positions and encouraged them to support their husbands’ practices through auxiliary work, rather than practicing on their own. Despite chiropractic’s general distaste for any similarity to allopathic medicine, from the 1930s onward, the profession mimicked regular medicine’s suppression of women students and practitioners, rather than maintaining its founding emphasis on the ability and right of women chiropractors to practice. Chiropractic continues to lag behind regular medical professions (medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy) for numbers of women practitioners, with women making up a quarter of chiropractors versus a third of MDs and DOs in 2016. The Palmers would probably tell modern chiropractic schools that “[t]he age of the woman is here,”14 and to get with the program.
- D. D. Palmer, The Chiropractic, no. 17 (Jan 1897): 3 (italics in original). Return to text.
- In writing this article, I’ve relied in part on conservative, traditional European-American notions of who a women is, or was likely to have been, in order to identify “women” chiropractors. I looked for stereotypically female English names, people addressed as “Mrs.,” she/her/hers pronouns in print ads, as well as hairstyles and forms of dress when photos are available of practitioners or students. This article also draws on letters from people who self-identified as women. D. D. Palmer and B. J. Palmer, The Science of Chiropractic: Its Principles and Adjustments (Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1906). Return to text.
- John S. Haller Jr., Kindly Medicine: Physio-Medicalism in America, 1836-1911 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1997), 2-5. Return to text.
- “Osteopathy,” JAMA 28, no. 15 (Apr 10, 1897): 709. Return to text.
- Susan L. Smith-Cunnien, A Profession of One’s Own: Organized Medicine’s Opposition to Chiropractic (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998), 30; “Current Comment,” JAMA 61, no. 4 (1913): 284. Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic, The Science of Chiropractic: Causes Localized (Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1908), 88. Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic, The Science of Chiropractic, 88. Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic, Chiropractic for Women, and What Women Chiropractors Say (Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1917); Idem, Chiropractic for Women: Dedicated to Every Truly Ambitious Woman Who Would Break the Fetters of Dependency (Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1917). Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic, Chiropractic for Women, 4. Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic. (1911-1919). [Composite graduation photos, graduation programs]. Special Collections and Archives, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport, IA. Return to text.
- Federal Board for Vocational Education, Fifth Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921); Information Bulletin No. 97, (July 14, 1921). Return to text.
- Minneapolis (MN) Tribune, Aug 29, 1920. Return to text.
- T.S.B., “Is the Government Letting Down the Bars to Quackery? Chiropractic and the Federal Board for Vocational Education,” American Physician 27, no. 7 (1922): 45-47. Return to text.
- Palmer School of Chiropractic, Chiropractic for Women, 4. Return to text.