While chiropractic therapy might now seem like a widely accepted treatment for physical ailments, the practice was hotly contested from the time of its emergence in 1895 until the middle of the twentieth century. Waco chiropractor Charles Lemly, who was reportedly arrested sixty-six times between 1915 and 1943 for practicing the controversial chiropractic method, became a lightning rod in debates on the legitimacy of his profession. Lemly would be instrumental in advocating for the acceptance of chiropractic as a legitimate practice, both at the state and local levels.
Charles C. Lemly was born around 1892 in Waco, Texas. The young Lemly was familiar with the medical field from an early age, as his father was a pharmacist. Lemly’s interest in chiropractic as a profession was sparked when he experienced dramatically positive results from chiropractic treatment early in life. When he began his training, however, the chiropractic treatments were relatively new and not widely accepted.
Chiropractic had occupied a controversial space in American medicine and culture since its “discovery” by Daniel David Palter in 1895, when Palmer used spinal manipulation to perform the first “adjustment” to a patient who had lost his hearing. Palmer, a Spiritualist, saw chiropractic as a middle ground between Christian Science and medicine, a metaphysical alternative to traditional religion that incorporated elements of the scientific. While subsequent practitioners did not share Palmer’s brand of spirituality, chiropractic quickly became contested as the medical field professionalized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
During this time, national and state medical associations sprung up across the country to ensure the credentials of doctors, and medical practitioners debated the definition, purpose, and nature of medicine. For many, that definition did not include chiropractic. The lack of standing examinations in the chiropractic profession concerned doctors, who questioned the efficacy of chiropractic methods and who worried that chiropractors intended to replace serious medical care with rival, quack treatments. Doctors saw chiropractic as a threat to both public health and individual citizens. Campaigns to discredit chiropractic were coordinated nationally through the American Medical Association and at the state level through the Texas Medical Association.
Chiropractors, however, attempted to establish their practice as legitimate in the eyes of the medical community and the public through the use of scientific terms and the formation of such organizations as the Texas Chiropractic Association (TCA) in 1914. Lemly promptly joined the TCA that same year after his graduation from the Universal Chiropractic College and set up a practice in Waco, Texas, where he lived at 1307 Columbus Avenue with his wife and daughter. From 1930 to 1939, Howard Mann leased East Terrace House in East Waco to Lemly who converted it into the Lemly Chiropractic Psychopathic Sanatorium.
Lemly, like other chiropractors, faced the threat of arrest under the charge of practicing medicine without a license, given that there existed no legally accepted licensing for chiropractors. One of Lemly’s many arrests on the charge of offering unlicensed medical treatment occurred in 1926. During the trial, Lemly’s attorney objected to the prosecution using the term “treatments,” arguing instead that Lemly made a charge for adjustments. The defense argued that there was no testimony to show that he called himself a doctor or had used any medicine. Lemly also appealed to one of his most famous clients, Judge and Baylor University President Pat Neff, declaring, “Mr. Neff is taking adjustments from me now, so he must still believe in us.” Lemly and others argued that it was not their intention to violate the medical laws of Texas, and that they wished for a law to be passed that created a board of examiners to professionalize the chiropractic practice, making licensing a possibility.
In the face of such opposition, chiropractors mobilized in the 1930s and 40s to create associations and lobbying groups that might bring about legislation sanctioning their practices, but divisions within their community over specifics of practice hindered the unity necessary to create legislative change. The Texas State Chiropractic Association provided for the legal defense of its members beginning in 1938. Ultimately, Lemly was instrumental in introducing the first chiropractic licensing bills in the 1930s, which received the support of Pat Neff, who not only received adjustments from Lemly but who defended accused chiropractors as well. But these initial bills did not muster enough support to pass during the 1930s.
In 1943, the first Chiropractic Act of Texas passed. This bill, however, was ruled unconstitutional. It would be six more years before the passing of another bill that proved acceptable to chiropractors and legislators alike. The law stipulated that chiropractors must complete, in addition to chiropractic school, a minimum of two years of college and identified required science courses. In the next session, the chiropractic profession was included by the legislature in the Workers Compensation Act of 1951.
Lemly continued to practice chiropractic throughout the 1960s, by which time the American public had become increasingly open to chiropractic as a legitimate method of addressing physical ills. A lifelong advocate of chiropractic, Lemly published articles to “explain the practice of Modern, scientific Chiropractic, the second largest healing profession in the world.” By the time of Lemly’s death in 1970, chiropractic had, for many, come to carry scientific legitimacy while also constituting a more natural and non-invasive treatment approach to physical ailments.