Filed under: Chiro-Picker, chiropractic history | Tags: BJ Palmer, Chips from Sweet Home, Chiro-Picker, chiropractic history, Nellie Revell, Palmer School of Chiropractic, Palmergram, PSC, Todd Waters, vaudeville
by Todd Waters, aka “The Chiro-Picker” – SpinalColumnRadio featured blogger
As a non-DC, but avid DC-historian, I can speak with some authority when I say chiropractors have never had an easy time selling what they do to the public. Although chiropractic is beneficial to the health of man, it is difficult to quickly explain to the layperson what it is — and on the flip side, what it isn’t. Chiropractic concepts are further complicated when potential patients must “unlearn” what hearsay has taught them.
From its beginning, the chiropractic profession has been smeared by other practitioners of health care, driven by competition and misunderstanding.
However, there was a period in chiropractic’s early life where the profession was under attack by clowns… Literally.
The attack came straight from the Vaudeville stage and was devastating to chiropractors everywhere, until Dr. BJ Palmer, the fountainhead of the profession, came to the rescue:
From turbulation came innovation and the Palmergram was born.
In 1919, Vaudeville comedian Nellie Revell was severely injured by an improper chiropractic adjustment delivered by an inebriated chiropractor. The chiropractor’s table was a model common in that day — separating at its center. Unfortunately his impaired judgement caused him to space the table parts too far apart — which became devastatingly obvious as he, in his drunken stupor, lunged on Revell’s back causing her stomach to drop to the floor and her legs to “jackknife” upward. Nellie Revell was hospitalized and bedridden from paralysis and a fractured spine. It appeared the career of this bright star was over.
It just so happened that Miss Revell was close to Mr. EF Albee, owner and operator of many Vaudeville circuits at the time. Upset at what this drunken chiropractor had done to his friend, he ordered his theatrical performers to knock chiropractic at every opportunity when on stage. This was significant, because the traveling Vaudeville show was THE big entertainment of that era and millions were audience to their chiropractic smear campaign each and everyday. It wasn’t long before chiropractors began to feel the impact of this blow and suffered large drops in patient visits as a result. In desperation, chiropractors pleaded with Palmer to save the profession from this malicious attack.
Probably nobody took the news more to heart than BJ. After all, he was an ardent fan of “The Big Top” and Vaudeville and was now forced to witness the mockery from the very performers he called friends, as they slowly began to destroy the science, art, and philosophy he had so painstakingly devoted his life to develop.
One night while attending an evening production — and enduring, with each and every act, the humiliation of these hits to his profession — he noticed “something was vaguely wrong.” The performers were not delivering their best. Their performances were “off.” And then it hit him. All of the players were sick! Being friends with the manager of that theater, Palmer gained access backstage after the show to address the ill performers. It was then that he delivered what must have been one of the most impossible, yet effective, chiropractic lay lectures of all time.
The ailing motley crew was invited to come to his office the next morning to receive chiropractic services at no cost so they could get well and resume excellent performance. Later that week he followed up with an inquiry as to how the players were performing. A very pleased manager reported that everyone was jovial and performing at the top of their game.
You see, as a teen, Palmer had worked in the Vaudeville circuit with Professor Flint, so he knew firsthand how they stuck together like family. “Theatrical folk are clannish,” he described. “Injure one, you injure all; and they’re not one bit bashful saying so in open meeting with no punches pulled. [But],” he continued, “benefit one, you benefit all; and they’re just as strong in saying so anywhere, to anybody, with full intent to help him who helps them.”
BJ was very fond of the phrase “Conflicts Clarify.” He knew that with great challenges came opportunities for great solutions. He surmised that if the influence of such performances had the ability to degrade the public’s perception of chiropractic, it also had the ability to raise it.
In an act of genius and innovation, BJ birthed the “Palmergram.”
Thousands were sent to theatrical folk everywhere.
The Palmergram was an excellent communication to the chiropractic community that the public’s trust would have to be earned one person at a time. With each person chiropractic could either be obliterated or saved. The profession was given a chance of redemption but also reminded to keep itself in check. Obviously, BJ could not be responsible for the actions of any one man, but the strong wording in his letter was, no doubt, an attempt to remind “chiropractors everywhere” to practice straight, unmixed chiropractic.
Performers receiving the gratis care were so pleased by the experience and results that they no longer jeered chiropractic from the stage but, in fact… endorsed it! BJ maintained that these boosts for chiropractic were of the performers own free will and accord, and that he had not solicited it from them. The only thing he asked in return for his Palmergram was for the performer to send an autographed photo of themselves. It wasn’t long before these photos covered every square inch of wall, and eventually ceiling, space of the Palmer Clinic.
And so what of Nellie Revell, our beloved entertainer that fell victim to one man’s unconscionable actions?
At the time of her release from the hospital in 1923, she debuted her first book “Right off the Chest.” The book was filled with light-hearted and whimsical observations of her life. It was largely devoted to her experience in the hospital seen through a perspective that her glass was half-full, not half-empty. And while she lightly touched on the incident that ultimately led her to her hospitalization, she cast no scorn on chiropractic, nor on the chiropractor who injured her — even going so far as to state that she had experienced back problems before ever seeing him.
It was Revell’s positive attitude and love of the arts that became the driving force that helped her endure this tragedy. This bright star also saw “Clarity” through her own “Conflict.” She went on to write several additional books, and became known as the “first female publicist,” which evolved into a very successful career of her covering the lives of entertainers in the industry. Later, this “Big Sister of Vaudeville” (as they called her) landed her own gossip radio show and wrote several screenplays for feature films, including “Spangles.”
‘Til next time. — CP
The DC Angle:
“Doc ‘Check’ Yourself: Are You a Thoroughbred?”
Can you imagine having 8,000 autographed 8×10 photos of actors and actresses blanketing your walls AND ceilings??? Each one touting the benefits of the TIC. And then can you imagine having an additional 4,000 that you simply could not hang up for lack of any additional space? …Simply amazing! One thing is for sure, BJ was innovative, and he knew how to market.
I get mixed feelings each time I hear the Palmergram story. On one hand it is an inspiring demonstration of “how one man’s genius saved a profession from another’s stupidity” (to loosely quote BJ). On the other hand, though, I can’t help but think how Nellie Revell’s life was forever changed from that event.
Even though it happened nearly 100 years ago, as Todd stated, I still get “checked” by it. Sure chiropractic tables have had a century’s worth of improvement, and I hope to God that none of my colleagues are intoxicated when caring for their patients — but it still checks me.
It reminds me as a chiropractor that for as much as my hands have the ability to help, there is always the potential that they can harm — especially if I am not completely, 100%, present with my patient.
There are no guarantees in life and bad things do happen — we all know that — but we can limit those things from happening if we are intentional about NOT being stupid.
I appreciated the axiom of wisdom that Palmer penned about the incident:
“If you drink, don’t adjust. If you adjust, don’t drink!”
I also loved the unabashed tone of his Palmergram:
“TO CHIROPRACTORS EVERYWHERE….
“[This performer] is of the good people of the road. His path through life is strenuous, with many downs and a few ups. He is a booster for us and will do much for you.
“He has troubles that need adjusting. Get busy. Give him the straight, specific, pure, unadulterated type. He knows that adjusting subluxations in the spine is Chiropractic and that anything else given him under the guise of Chiropractic is proof that you are not a thorobred. So, cut out the electricity, baths, stretching machines, and the rest of the bunk, give him your best and charge it to profit and loss.”
[blue emphasis mine. Boy, he didn’t pull any punches! He could have easily dated this letter 2013. It’s amazing how the problems that we are facing RIGHT NOW in our profession were present in one form or another right from the beginning].
And I applaud how Miss Revell was able to put this unfortunate incident behind her; and then in a showing of her own innovation, repurpose her talents to continue entertaining the public through different mediums. And hey, because writing and screenplay were two of those ways, their time-shifting characteristic allows us to continue to be entertained by her whit even to this day. [I just purchased her book (but you can read it free here). She would have made a great podcaster — especially seeing how she picked up a radio show. 🙂 I wonder if it aired on Palmer’s stations? BTW, check out this cool cartoon of Nellie that the Picker found]. And for those who are wondering (because I certainly was), I’m happy to report that with time she regained the ability to walk.
Before I put down the pen and get back to my microphone, I want to direct your attention to our interview with BJ Palmer Fanatic, Dr. Steven Simmons (SCR 140 starting at 40:33, or click on the player below for the clip).
In this interview Simmons tells the story of how BJ single-handedly saved the profession with the Palmergram. Plus, you’ll want to tune into episode 161 in which we do the Palmergram justice with additional details not told here, including the recollection of an old-time doc who remembers actually receiving one!
So, I’ll catch you on the podcast side. …And as as BJ would say:
Dr. Thomas Lamar loves chiropracTIC and its associated history. He podcasts, with the assistance of his audio-engineer son, Logan, on SpinalColumnRadio.com from his home studio in Kingston, WA. Lamar also practices chiropractic in Kingston with an emphasis on family wellness.
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