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The Marvelous Mrs. Mabel

Her name was Mabel

Mabel Palmer, D.C., portraitWorking mother. World traveler. Witty and wonderful. Well-mannered and always gracious.

But, these are the 1900s. Scroll your index finger down a guest list just before the local Lion’s Club luncheon that Mabel Heath Palmer, D.C. is attending, and you won’t find her name. You’ll find her listed as Mrs. B.J. Palmer, D.C. It’s time for her moment in the spotlight.

There she is, at the podium. In front of her, a sea of people eager to hear from this woman who was among the first to graduate from the Palmer School of Chiropractic.  She stands confident. After all, speaking in front of people isn’t anything new for Mabel. Our heroine has traveled the world three times over—exploring the Sphinx of Egypt, the Taj Mahal of India, even the grassy plains of North Dakota. Everywhere she goes, welcoming gifts are bestowed upon her. They aren’t just gifts to Mabel, though. They represent moments that make up a life: moments of listening, of learning, and yes, of championing people and causes she believes in.

Our First Lady of Chiropractic is ever-curious and always intentional. Abroad, she is met with enthusiasm and inquisitiveness. At home, she is sometimes met with skepticism and wonder. This is more than a century ago, and chiropractic is still new, after all.

But Mabel doesn’t have time for pithy doubters. With her quick wit, she’ll just captivate them instead.

“When one has attained perfection, why bother to try again?” she asks.

She is talking about her first and only son David Daniel. She loves him so dearly. She loves being a mother—a working mother, that is.

There is a roar of laughter from the crowd, and a sly smile on Mabel’s face. She has their attention, which is good, because she has a powerful message for them.

Those that have gathered are here to hear Mabel talk about chiropractic, but she has other objectives too. There’s a national dialogue bubbling up about the role of women in society, and she’s going to use her platform to talk about gender roles—and a woman’s right to vote.

“My life is very busy, being a working wife and mother,” she adds. But if you think she’s going to follow that up with an excuse, you’re wrong. “Knowing that the young women scholars at our school of chiropractic are following in my footsteps, I believe that a woman can do anything a man can do. They just need to be given a chance to try.”

Sweet and Smart

A chance to try is something Mabel worked to offer women throughout her life and travels: a chance to study, a chance to have a voice, a chance to lead, a chance to serve, and eventually, a chance to vote.

Born just outside the Village of Milan, Illinois, in 1881, her father William studied chiropractic. Mabel’s kind demeanor earned her the nickname “Sweet Mabel” (well-intentioned, certainly, even if it neglected to acknowledge her fierce intellect). As a young woman, she watched with a keen sense of curiosity as her father learned the hands-on technique that D.D. Palmer had discovered and developed right across the Mississippi River just 14 years after her birth. “My interest in chiropractic was first piqued by my father,” she recalls. “I found the idea of natural health care centered on them spine and nervous system to be very intriguing.”

And so at the start of the 20th century, Mabel pursued an education during a time that professional school wasn’t the norm for women and girls. No, Mabel was never one to follow traditional gender norms.

She enrolled at Augustana College just across town, where she studied elocution and sang in the chorus. It was during this time that she caught the eye of B.J. Palmer, D.C. They courted, quickly married, and soon found themselves immersed in the growing world of the then-Palmer School of Chiropractic. The early 1900s was a turbulent time at Palmer—the school and the profession were under constant threat. But Mabel was driven. She was daring. She was determined.

Mabel Palmer, D.C., teaching anatomy class
Mabel Palmer, D.C., teaching anatomy class (Palmer Archives)

She became one of the first women to become a doctor of chiropractic, a close adviser and confidant to B.J., and a fierce champion of a woman’s place in a profession that was dominated by men.

“At Palmer, we have had women working beside men almost from the beginning,” Mabel notes—her tone denoting an asterisk on her comment. (There could always be more women in chiropractic, she believed.)

While raising her son and serving as the business manager and treasurer for the school, Mabel continued to learn. At Rush Medical College in Chicago, she dove deep into studying the anatomy of the human body. “I am trying to live my life to demonstrate what I feel a woman can be—intelligent, capable, an inspiration to men and women alike, but never to sacrifice kindness and caring,” she says from the podium.

Upon returning to Palmer, she became the school’s first anatomy instructor. “In fact, I literally wrote the book on anatomy,” she notes to the Lion’s Club crowd. They are clearly impressed (and yes, even the men).

Stepping Out

While Mabel was evangelizing chiropractic—and the role of women in the profession—so too were the women all across the land raising their voices for equal rights and protections under the law. This not only energized Mabel—but it also provoked her into action.

“Why are women prevented from voting or sitting on juries? Are we not citizens of this country?” she posits from the podium. “Because I feel this so strongly, I had ‘Equal Rights’ and ‘Votes 4 Women’ painted on all sides of the exceedingly tall smokestack on our campus. Since this landmark is so tall, perhaps it will inspire all Davenport women.”

Mabel’s commitment to women went beyond public acts like painting smokestacks. When Quota Club, the first international women’s service organization promoting gender equality was formed in 1919, she quickly joined—and then started a Davenport chapter of her own. She was so dedicated to the mission that she became the international organization’s president in 1927 and started chapters in Australia and England. She also created the Lend-a-Hand Club in Davenport, which provided a safe place for women in the early 1900s.

It was a pamphlet “A Woman’s Appeals to Women” she sat down to write 100 years ago this year, in 1920s, however, that truly opened the door for women to consider a career in chiropractic. “Never before has there been such wonderful opportunities for women to practice service, and in my opinion, there is not another profession in the world so splendidly adapted to women as chiropractic,” she writes.

Indeed, Mabel’s tireless resolve demonstrated that the role of women in chiropractic not only could be— but was—equal to men. In fact, she demanded that women engage in service to their profession and to their community. Matilda Reinhardt was one of her students in 1923, and the young woman sat on the edge of her seat in a Palmer classroom taking in every word Mabel said.

“So clearly did she hold the cause of chiropractic before us, and our privilege of living it, that we were carried to the heights of desire for service, and left pledged stronger than ever to chiropractic,” the student later recalls.

It was a pledge that thousands of women chiropractors have taken since.

Carrying the Banner Forward

As the United States celebrates the centennial of the 19th amendment guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote, Palmer College alumni—and Mabel’s own granddaughter Vickie Anne Palmer, H.C.D. (Hon)—continue the legacy of fortitude and service that Mabel was known for.

“Mabel was a strong woman—a fascinating woman—who didn’t accept the status quo,” remembers her granddaughter, who carries on the Palmer legacy as The Refiner of Chiropractic and a member of the Board of Trustees. “She was a champion for the profession, and a trailblazer for women. I often think about the conversations that Mabel provoked and the example she modeled to ensure that anyone—no matter of gender—could receive a chiropractic education.”

To honor and continue her legacy, Palmer College established the Palmer Women’s Institute in 2018 to advance and inspire female chiropractors through education, mentoring and professional development. Participation is open to any chiropractor—regardless of gender—interested in supporting women in their studies, careers and civic life.

“Yes, men are welcome too,” notes Barbara Melbourne J.D., vice chancellor for institutional advancement who has worked alongside other women to form the institute. “Thanks to the generosity of alumni, we have already been able to establish scholarships for female students and hold a series of lectures on topics women tell us are important to them. There is great momentum for it, and of course, we seek to do more.”

“Every year, we see more and more women entering the field of chiropractic,” says Anita Wubbena, D.C. (Main, ’95), “and yet, we haven’t reached the cusp of what’s possible yet.”

Dr. Wubbena’s own story is one that other women can—and do—relate to. After working under trusted mentors and friends, she realized early in her career that she was both capable and energized by the prospect of going into business for herself.

“Women need to learn, and have support, with getting financing and negotiating business loans. The list goes on and on,” she says.

There is silence for a moment.

“And that’s why we need this institute—and we need women and men to support it,” Dr. Wubbena says. “It can be a safe place to talk and learn about, and act on issues that support women—and our whole profession. That excites me.”

She continues. “You know, I have had this extraordinary life—and that is in large part because of my Palmer education. I often wonder where I would be without my Palmer education. Let’s just say, I’m proud to have it.”

Mabel Heath Palmer, D.C.’s book “Stepping Stones,” and interviews and resources provided by Vickie Anne Palmer, Roger Hynes, D.C., and Alana Callendar, Ed.D. contributed to this story. All photos provided by the Palmer College Archives.

READ MORE from Palmer Proud Magazine