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B.J. Palmer standing near a fountain

The Palmer Osteological Collection

Dr. Daniel David “D.D.” Palmer, who had both a fondness and an appreciation for how living things are constructed, began his collection of human bones when he first began investigating the healing arts and studying the human body. These investigations eventually led to his discovery of chiropractic. D.D.’s collection grew from only a few specimens (prior to his 1895 formation of chiropractic) to numerous skeletons and spinal columns exhibiting many types of anomalies and pathologies. The collection not only provided educational value but also had the added benefit of enticing visitors to the clinic at the Palmer School and Infirmary.

B.J. Palmer acquired the nascent Osteological Collection when he bought out his father’s interest in the Palmer School of Chiropractic on May 1, 1906. Within six years, thousands of specimens had been added to the collection with representatives of every bone in the body. Specimens were obtained from biological supply companies (most notably the Charles H. Ward Co. of Rochester, N.Y.), some were gifts, and still others were obtained on his several travels around the globe. Normal and abnormal specimens were collected to allow comparisons. Pathologies and anomalies included ankylosis, carious lesions, wedge-shaped vertebrae, necrosis, osteomalacia, osteosclerosis, osteospongiosis, exostosis, scoliosis, rickets and spina bifida. Fractures were exhibited in long bones, ribs and vertebrae, just to name a few.

B.J. Palmer assembled the Osteological Studio in a room on the third floor of 828 Brady, convenient for student study. Augustus Dye (Evolution of Chiropractic, 1939) reported that in 1910 there were upwards of 10,000 skeletal elements in the studio, and even then the collection was known to the professors of anatomy in many of the nearby state medical colleges. These specimens were available to them, and were often studied by them to better qualify them for carrying on their lecture work in their own classes.

Bone on display with photograph

The collection continued to grow and in 1914, B.J. reported 4,392 total specimens, containing 13,697 skeletal elements. It was estimated that these 4,392 specimens represented approximately 3,000 persons, with a dollar value over $20,000, making it the largest and finest collection of pathological and anomalous bones in the world. At this time the collection was insured under a special classification for $15,000.

When the Administration Building was designed in 1918, it was decided that the mezzanine level, which took up approximately three-fourths of the entire floor space, would be devoted to the osteological studio in the front.

Floor plans for the Classroom Building, which was erected in 1920, show a major portion of the first floor was set aside for the collection. The 32 cases that still house the collection were built in the early 1920's, specifically for this purpose. Other vertebrate species were inducted into the collection and included other primates such as juvenile and adult orangutans, various species of monkeys, and a fetal ape with spina bifida. Other vertebrates included snakes, an elephant, a giraffe, fox, armadillo and a flamingo. Specimens were cataloged and listed by description, number and name, and were displayed in one of 32 cabinets.

The Palmer School of Chiropractic Osteological Collection was acknowledged in 1927 by an inspection team of the Council on Medical Education to be “without doubt, the best collection of human spines in existence.”

Bone specimens on display

As competition for students was increasing with the ever-increasing number of chiropractic educational institutions, B.J. used the Osteological Collection to entice potential students to The Fountainhead of Chiropractic: “The P.S.C. has the largest pathological and anomalous osteological collection of any school, college or university in the world. This aggregation is a necessity to properly teach and study innate intelligence. That is why every school attempting to teach chiropractic has abnormal specimens, but the P.S.C. has been years collecting ahead of them. Other schools purchase what they can afford. The P.S.C. accepts the choice selections from direct importations … To investigate intelligently means specimens are a necessity; the more you observe and have taught to you, the keener and deeper is the insight of this collective study. To work with a mere half dozen specimens is but to barely border the field.”

B.J. Palmer spent thousands of hours in the osteological laboratory studying the records of what innate did under anomalous, pathological and traumatic living conditions.

B.J. stated:

"There is something uncanny about our (B.J.'s) adjustment. That uncanniness was trained by long hard hours. That 'uncanniness' consisted of thousands of hours of seeing, looking at, studying, palpating thousands of vertebral osteological specimens, pathological, traumatic and anomalous, in [the] finest Osteological collection in [the] world, collected for that purpose.

"In that Osteological collection is an encyclopedia—anything and everything affecting human beings—which any or many could possibly want or need to know. Therein is evidence and proof of the sage of the ages, away up and beyond education, eclipsing that of any or all colleges or universities made of bricks or stones." - Palmer, B.J., Chiropractic Clinical Controlled Research, 1951 p.630

By 1943, the collection had been moved to the B.J. Palmer Chiropractic Clinic and contained 19,000 specimens (valued at over $150,000). In 1956, B.J. claimed 25,000 specimens (valued at over $350,000) were present in the collection and represented the ordinary and cases of arthritis, caries, necrosis, tuberculosis, osteomyelitis, osteomalacia, lordosis, kyphosis, scoliosis, exostosis, ankylosis, trauma and congenital malformations.

The years following B.J.'s death in 1961 led to substantial disruption of the collection. As teaching methods became more sophisticated, the collection decreased in teaching value. The catalog became lost and the tags were the only history associated with each piece.

In the United States, there are few skeletal collections devoted to pathological conditions, including those of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., who boast more than 5000 skeletal specimens and 10,000 preserved organs. The Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University has a skeletal collection. The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia collections contains some 20,000 human specimens and medical instruments from the 19th century to the present.

There are those that incorrectly feel the Osteological collection merely provided B.J. Palmer another way to entice visitors with a morbid curiosity to the Palmer Campus. Not only did he view the collection as a teaching tool, but the following also demonstrates his respect and sensitivity for the remains:

"Dead bones,’ you say! They are dead to most people. To us, they are reminders of people who lived, chatted, spoke, telling countless years of active participation in world affairs. They educationally spoke many tongues, but functionally all performed one universal language. Each osseous specimen is a college degree, a book, a library, a living story of struggles galore of Innates, to retain life in the home it lived in.”

The collection was moved to the David D. Palmer Health Sciences Library in 1977. There it rested as a curiosity for students and visitors to the College for 20 years. Art students from area schools used the specimens as models.

Originally, B.J. Palmer catalogued each of the specimens by affixing a tag that contained a number and often contained a description of the specimen and the pathology it presented. He also had each specimen photographed. The glass plate negatives remain as testimony to his careful consideration of the collection.

J.H. Craven, an instructor at the Palmer School, studied the collection extensively in preparation for his 1921 book Chiropractic Orthopody. Craven felt that anatomists did not consider the spinal column to be of any more importance than the rest of the body and thus claimed to glean little information from other osteological texts. His chief source of information was the "Osteological Studio of the P.S.C." (Craven 1921)

Fred Barge, D.C. prominently utilized pictures of spines from the collection in many of his books – e.g., "Tortipelvis and Scoliosis."

In 1997, the Palmer Foundation for Chiropractic History hired an osteological curator to clean, catalog and restore the collection. The main impetus was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act as the collection contained a few Native American specimens. All tribes who may be culturally affiliated with the specimens identified as Native American have been contacted and notification has been sent to the Federal Register, in compliance with NAGPRA.

Presently each individual specimen has been labeled with permanent marker on a base of clear nail polish, reversible with acetone. The tags have been cleaned by brushing, but the instability of the inks prevents further cleaning. Selected specimens from the Palmer Osteological Collection are now displayed in the Palmer Main Clinic and on the first floor of the David D. Palmer Memorial Health Sciences Library in the large black cabinets that have housed the collection since the early 1920s. Although the cabinets are not ideal by museum standards, they have their own historical value. The remainder of the collection is resting in storage, catalogued and available to researchers.

The collection has recently been used by master degree students in anatomy, who studied specimens as they prepared their theses. Some of the scoliotic spines are on loan to the University of Iowa for MRI studies.

The mission of the Palmer Foundation for Chiropractic History is a chiropractic museum, and the Osteological Collection is one of the collections on which we are placing the feasibility of this museum.

The goals of the Foundation are:

  • To have an interpretative label that would be comprehensible to the layperson accompany each displayed specimen.
  • To have the catalog for the entire collection available on a database that would display the specimen, the availability of a glass plate negative, the osteometric measurements for its specimen, and the pathology that is represented.
  • The collection not on display would rest in appropriate secure storage, protected from light, dust and vibration. It would be available to researchers, in a monitored area with the workspace and lighting necessary for research.

As T.D. Stewart noted in 1969, "We should never forget ... that museums have the unique function of collecting, preserving and interpreting objects. Words and pictures can be found in books, but objects can be found only in museums. People visit museums to see original objects, not pictures or casts thereof." The Palmer Foundation for Chiropractic History is dedicated to protecting and curating the Osteological Collection so its stories can be preserved and educate all who choose to see its marvels of innate engineering.

Provided by Roger Hynes, D.C., Palmer Foundation for Chiropractic History

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Roger Hynes
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