The Palmers and the Port Perry Myths
By Joseph Keating Jr., PhD
Port Perry, Ontario, that almost mythical locale way up north (perhaps not far from Santa's workshop?) where D.D. Palmer spent his youth, has been the focus of much mistaken history. Generations of chiropractors have learned that it was in Port Perry that the father of chiropractic was born, and Palmer's biographer continued this mistake.3 It was here that a false nativity site was dedicated, along with a monument to this innovator in health care.How this error crept into the saga of chiropractic is not clear, but the efforts of several investigators have helped to set the record straight and provide partial explanation for the growth of the myths.
Research conducted by Herbert J. Vear, DC, has established that the founder was born in Pickering, a town located just west of Toronto.9,10
Dr. Vear's search of various archives and databases yielded an account not dissimilar from several that Old Dad Chiro himself had offered. Writing in the December 1908 issue of The Chiropractor Adjuster, a magazine published by his D.D. Palmer College of Chiropractic in Portland, Oregon, Palmer related the following:
A few years later, D.D. repeated the assertion that his birthplace was proximate to Toronto, although a different birthdate was given:
"I was born on March 7, 1845, a few miles east of Toronto, Canada. My ancestors were Scotch and Irish on my maternal and English and German on my paternal side. When my grandparents settled near the now beautiful city of Toronto, there was but one log house, the beginning of that great city. That region was then known as 'away out west'."7
Parenthetically, this alternate birthdate, March 6 1845, would reappear on Palmer's death certificate.7 Of greater interest here, however, is the point that Pickering is a few miles east of Toronto; Port Perry is "50 miles northeast from the center of Toronto."10 This is a 30-60 minute drive by automobile today, but would have been a six-hour trek or more by horse and buggy in Palmer's era.5
The area in Pickering where D.D. Palmer was born was known as Brown's Corner, and later as Audley, and it was here, rather than in Port Perry, that his father, Thomas, served as postmaster. John Black, the "brutish schoolmaster" for D.D. and his siblings, has been located in census records for 1851 and 1861 in Audley, not Port Perry.9,10 D.D.'s parents apparently relocated the family to the hamlet on the banks of Lake Scugog (where the Palmer Memorial stands today), perhaps as early as 1855,2 and in time for the census conducted in 1861.9 The family departed Ontario for the Mississippi River Valley in 1865, at the end of America's Civil War.
Sometime during the next seven decades, some confusion was introduced. By the time the National Chiropractic Association (NCA; forerunner of today's American Chiropractic Association) held its convention in Toronto in 1938, visited Port Perry and decided to erect a monument to the founder, the mistaken notion that Palmer had been born in Port Perry had taken hold.
Interviewed circa 1938, Mrs. M.K. Allison and Mrs. Naomi Coburn related that they had attended school with D.D. Palmer in Port Perry, and they identified 214 Mary Street as the location of the Palmer home.
Unfortunately, both had passed away by the time D.D.'s grandson, David D. Palmer, DC, visited Port Perry following his assumption of duties as president of the Palmer School of Chiropractic.
Paul Arculus, historian and author,1 has investigated Port Perry's history extensively, and reports that two sites in the village were identified as the "Palmer birthplace." One of these was 15238 Old Simcoe Road (site of the currently misidentified Palmer home); the other was 214 Mary Street. Neither was the birthplace of the founder, but perhaps one of these was indeed the Palmer family home in Port Perry. Based on his extensive research, Mr. Arculus relates:
Mr. Arculus reviewed tax records available in the Scugog Shores Museum and discovered that D.D.'s father, Thomas Palmer, had paid tax on "Lot 79 in Port Perry in 1855,"2 and further determined that Lot 79 is 214 Mary Street. The elder Palmer continued to pay property tax on the Mary Street residence until 1865, when the family departed Canada.
Paul Arculus has further determined that the property on Simcoe Road was owned by a George Palmer in 1860, an individual who is not known to be related to D.D. Palmer's family. In any case, it seems likely that this record of ownership is the source of the mistaken identification of the Simcoe Road property as the site of D.D.'s family residence. Mr. Arculus reminds us also that the statue of D.D. Palmer in Port Perry mistakenly indicates that the father of chiropractic was born in Port Perry, and recommends efforts to correct this error.
So what? Who cares if the father of chiropractic was born in Pickering or Port Perry? What difference does it make if a teenage D.D. Palmer lived on Simcoe Road or Mary Street in Port Perry? Isn't this all historical trivia, the stuff of mental exercise for pointy-headed scholars? Well, yes, but ... these are also a few of the great many myths in chiropractic, such as the date of the first adjustment, or the notion that osteopaths were only interested in circulation and not in the nervous system, or that Palmer went to his grave believing that nerves were pinched between spinal bones, or that he died from injuries rendered by his son.4
Like any profession, chiropractic has its wonders and its warts. Its history is a rich and complex tapestry that provides an important component in the profession's sense of identity and purpose, a lens for looking at ourselves and for making better choices for the future based on a clearer understanding of what the profession has come through. There truly are bright spots and dark areas in the chiropractic saga, and they have channeled and molded the profession through the years. Accurate history or mistaken legends - what's your preference?
Joseph Keating Jr., PhD
Editor's note: In Dr. Keating's previous column ("Silver Anniversary of the Association for the History of Chiropractic!"April 23 DC), the photos of Dr. A. Earl Homewood and Dr. John B. Wolfe (pg 18) were mistakenly reversed. We apologize for any confusion stemming from this error. The photos now appear with their appropriate captions online (www.chiroweb.com/archives/23/09/12.html).
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