“A Perfection of Pulchritude” in a Press Photo from the National Progressive Chiropractic Association Conference, Los Angeles, August 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the 15 October 1928 issue of the Los Angeles Record, a consortium of eleven chiropractors under the guise of the Better Health Bureau published the first of a series of articles of their profession titled “Chiropractic—The Great Health Science.” In it, they focused on the practice’s origin story, purportedly taking place on 18 September 1895 when Dr. Daniel David Palmer of Davenport, Iowa was approached by the hearing impaired elevator operator of the building in which Palmer maintained his office.

Charles H. Wood’s World War I registration information, including the official’s statement that his religious exemption declaration was a “pretense.”

As the account observed, the patient, “a humble colored man” named Harvey Lillard, told Palmer that his deafness came from an accident in which he was “in a very cramped position” and that “he felt something snap in his neck.” From that point, his condition worsened, but no doctor would accept the story that there was a relationship between the injury and the impairment, until, that is, Palmer heard the account and then observed “a condition of the spine that seemed abnormal.” He then,

attempted with a push of his arm and hand directed at this apparently offending vertabra, to throw it forward and toward the line of symmetry with its fellows. When the thrust was made a snapping report was heard, and the vertebra slipped back into its normal position. The line of symmetry in the spine was reestablished and Mr. Lillard entire recovered his hearing.

From this foundation beginning, which, however, had some disagreement about the particulars, came the establishment of an “alternative” form of medical treatment “that today is known throughout the world, and is being practiced by somewhere near 40,000 practictioners, is legally recognized in nearly every state and territory in the Union, and also by foreign governments.” This situation was adjudged to be “one of the most phenominal [sic] achievements that would be recorded anywhere in history.”

Los Angeles Express, 10 January 1920.

Acknowledging the challenges of acceptance of their profession and system, the eleven chiropractors added, “the psychology of the public changes from the orthodox to the new and un-orthodox but slowly,” but they continued that its rapid evolution and growth meant that “even the most orthodox must come to the conclusion that it must have been of great value to many and to have restored them to health, or it could not have made the progress that it has.”

Calling upon readers to seek a consultation and examination, they averred that “the science of chiropractic proves that scientifics adjustments will be followed by the return of health” and added that they “bear the stamp of reliability, educational qualifications and endorsements of the chiropractic profession.” A coupon was at the bottom to send to any of the practitioners for information on how they could help with “any health questions you wish answered.”

Express, 20 August 1921.

One of those in the loosely confederated Bureau was Dr. Charles Henry Wood, who was a pioneering chiropractor in Los Angeles and who is the subject of tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection, a press photograph of him and Lou Branch, an entrant in a “back beauty” contest held as part of the annual conference of the National Progressive Chiropractic Association in Los Angeles early in August 1928. The contest, along with a perfect baby competition, were obvious ways for Wood and his compatriots to attract media attention to their conference, which was held from the mid-1920s through the early 1940s.

Wood (1890-1947) was born in Denver, Colorado and raised with two brothers by a widowed mother, but his early life is obscure. In the 1910 census, he was an express company driver, but early that year he married 16-year old Lulu McCracken, who gave birth to a daughter, Ellen, just a month later—in that April’s federal census , however, the couple were living with their respective families and, though Ellen was listed as having a child, the baby was not enumerated wither either parent.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 31 August 1924.

In an case, by the outbreak of the First World War, the family was in Los Angeles, where Wood worked as a meter man for the Los Angeles Gas Company and, when he registered for the draft and claimed a religious exemption, the official compiling the document tersely noted “religion is [a] pretense.” In 1920, Charles and Lulu were both listed in the Angel City’s official directory as chiropractors at the bottom of Bunker Hill on Hill Street south of 3rd, where he operated the Eclectic Chiropractic College. Most likely, the couple graduated from the Los Angeles Chiropractic College, founded by Linnie Cale in 1911, and then struck out on their own.

The 21 August 1920 edition of the Los Angeles Express included an ad from the Eclectic stating that there were three structures in the complex, with a capacity for 500 students, and that “its faculty, the largest of any chiropractic school west of Chicago, are men and women of thorough training and experience.” There was also a short history of Palmer’s accidental discovery of the “specific adjustment,” denoted as “the scientific principle of chiropractic,” while the discipline’s philosophy was based on the concept that, outside of injury, the suffering of any part of the body “is because of imping[e]ment or pressure upon a nerve, resulting from sublaxation or displacement of a vertebrae of the spinal column.”

Los Angeles Times, 3 August 1927.

Also highlighted was the fact that instruction was for treatment that was without the use of drugs. Full-time students taking daytime classes could complete the course in a year, while part-time night scholars would take twice the time. A post-graduate course was also offered, while an on-site clinic was present so that students would work the mandated 500 hours for completion. It was stated that cures, including some “which seem miraculous,” were effected at the clinic, with one man said to have been unable to raise his arms for a year and a half before finding, after just two treatments, that he could do so. Some sixty epilectics were also reported to have been cured.

In the same paper, exactly a year later, a similar ad included photos of Wood, sporting a dapper mustache and goatee, and of the senior class engaged in physical education activities on the building’s roof and a class listening to an instructor in a laboratory. This edition of the ad started with the claim that “just as this city leads in other lines of endeavor, Los Angeles leads with the largest College of Chiropractic in the West” with stated advantages of because of unlimited accommodations, “the climate in this wonderful city,” and, lastly, “the wide variety of clinical materials always at hand.”

Wood weighed in by criticizing the unorthodox secrecy of chiropractor William J. Peacock in this “Sleeping Beauty” incident, Whittier News, 4 August 1927.

Within its buildings, two four-story structures (with the ground floor used for retail purposes) on Hill Street and a five-story edifice on Clay Street, an alley to the west that no longer exists, there were, in the former, an 800-seat auditorium, the clinic where 700 patients each day were treated with adjustments, and offices, while the latter contained the classrooms (with “projecting machines,” laboratories, the X-Ray Department, and other equipment) and dormitories.

At the time, there were no state regulations for chiropractic practice, but that soon changed with the passage of a voter-approved intitiative, Proposition 16, which received about 60% of the votes at the November 1922 election. It was later stated that Wood had a hand in writing the legislation for the initiative. Meanwhile, he and Lulu drifted apart and, in June 1922, it was reported that, during a hearing for the divorce she initiated, Wood “called her a ‘clumsy cow” after she tripped on a sidewalk, this being one example of how he “was a man of violent temper and embarrassed her by his remarks.” Furthermore, she asserted that he “failed to provide his wife with a suitable home” as “he compelled her to live in two small rooms at his college.”

In 1924, Lulu remarried, though she continued in chiropractic practice for several more years, while Wood married Wilma Churchill, who was probably one of his students and also became a chiropractor. Their marriage failed within several years and he married a third time, with that relationship lasting until his death.

Express, 6 August 1928.

In summer 1924, a merger took place between the Eclectic and Los Angeles chiropractic colleges, this latter being on Sixth Street next to Good Samaritan Hospital, with the facility retaining the Los Angeles name, but moving to a three-story building on 16th Street (soon renamed Venice Boulevard) just northwest of the junction of today’s Interstates 10 and 110. It was here that the National Progressive Chiropractic Association conferences were held for many years.

In 1926-27, Wood faced disciplinary hearings before the State Board of Chiropractic Examiners that he, supposedly, helped create because of “alleged grounds of misrepresentation in obtaining his California license in 1923,” the first year licensing was adopted. It was not stated what the “misrepresentation” was, but he was ultimately successful in convincing the board to overturn the revocation first ordered in the incident.

Times, 8 August 1928.

Shortly after this, the chiropractor was involved tangentially in a very strange incident involving Clara Drummond, a 19-year old woman who was found in a coma in early April 1927 after inhaling gas at her home near Fresno. While it was not certain, it appears she might have attempted suicide, but, after efforts to treat her in her home area, William J. Peacock, a chiropractor in Los Angeles, convinced her family to allow him to move her in July to a facility, which turned out to be unlicensed, where he conducted secretive treatments.

As “one of the leading figures of chiropractics,” Wood was asked to weigh in on Peacock’s lack of transparency and stated:

Chiropractic is open and above board. In chiropractic treatment, there is no necessity for secrecy or mysterious maneuvers.

The chiropractic profession as a whole feels it obligatory, I believe, that the general public be enlightened as to the treatment of Mrs. Drummond, due to the interest which has arisen over the case. The theory of chiropractic is not concerned with anything metaphysical or anything that cannot be thoroughly explained.

Because the industry was subject to criticism by the mainstream, orthodox medical community and many in the public, it was clear that Wood felt it vital to counter Peacock’s handling of Drummond because he was also determined to convince the general population that chiropractic care was legitimate and successful. This is why he sought media coverage for his profession and the annual conferences, which were sometimes open to the public.

Los Angeles Record, 8 August 1928.

The “beach beauty” contests certainly were part of that public relations strategy and, in the lead up to the August 1928 conference, Wood was, for example, quoted about how, as the Monrovia News of 24 July titled it, “Debutate Slouch is Passe Now.” In this instance, it was asserted that “curves of the feminine vertebrae change almost as often the seasons and the prevailing vogue in backbones is the nearly perpendicular boyish posture.”

Another practitioner, Samuel J. Howell, president of the progressive association and secretary of the state board, added that “progressive chiropractic stands for advanced methods embracing electrical treatment , minor surgery and systems as well as the time honored back cracking.” This was an evolution away from the attitude and philosophy of Palmer and his sons in the early days. A change was also sought by 1928 in referring to “chiropractic physician” rather than using the word “practitioner” while chiropractors were urged to further their knowledge of bacteriology, chemistry, pathology and other medical subject matter.

Times, 9 August 1928.

During the conference, one of the more unusual highlighted innovations in treatment was demonstrated by Dr. William A. Chaikin, formerly of Chicago and practicing in Los Angeles, who used “a new apparatus, operated on radio amplifying principles, which brought out the noise made by the flow of nervous energy.” With an attractive female model as a subject, Chaikin claimed that “a dormant nerve gave forth an even humming sound, but a nerve suddenly awakened into activity, as when reporting a pain message, emitteed a growling, disconnected rattle.”

Another interesting assertion was made by Dr. G. Henry Ford (no relation, presumabvly, to the auto maker titan), who averred that “automotive engineers in all probability gained their idea for cooling gasoline engines from the arterial flow of the human body.” Dr. Lettie M. Whittemore, who came from Kansas as one of the 1,200 participants, told the assemblage that “automobiles are exercising a noticeable effect on the bone structure of young men [at least, a reference to males!] and women” due to the “gentle massage of upholstered cushions put into motion by the swaying of an automobile” which “has softened the pelvic bones to a considerable extent.” A lack of running and walking made the muscle tissue of legs smaller and less powerful, as well, though she asserted that “no great harm will arise.”

Times, 11 August 1928.

Then there was the ubiquitous phenomenon of bobbed hair, with Colorado delegate Dr. W. Gano Compere telling the conference attendees that this was the highest achievement for women in a century and was even more important than voter suffrage. This, apparently, was because “hair cut short, together with knee length shirts, is giving the women a new freedom of movement, which shortly will cause them to eclipse the men in speed of thought and action if men do not resort to looser, easier garments, permitting equal facility.”

On the other hand, the fad of young women applying oil to their hair in a “sheik” look popularized by the late actor Rudolph Valentino was roundly condemned, as oil clogged the pores and the weighted-down hair “curtails the circulation to the scalp and the mind is actually slowed down by this unwarranted handicap.” Otherwise, he applauded America’s young people as “there is nothing vulgar nor impious in the short cuts to freedom which have been adopted.”

Times, 11 August 1928.

Delegates Arthur W. Jensen and C.J. Joynt went so far as to assert in their presentation that Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage version of Dracula, then completing its final week at the Biltmore Theatre, “stimulated the nervous system, generated pep, and produced well-balanced body tone.” Having seen the performance, the two “declared it caused the audience, to live the part of the players on the stage, thereby quickening the mental perception and adding experience to the sub-conscious mind.”

With regard to that contest, it was stated that there were some 500 young women, all white by the way, who entered and a process of elimination brought that number down a tenth of that. In the 13 August edition of the Whittier News, it was articulated that thanks to “modern science aided by exercise, manual labor and correct posture,” there was a new standard, expressed by Wood as “sway backs are gone, in their place has come the almost perpendicular, slightly curved spine. It’s the new, recognized and approved womanly beauty.”

Venice Vanguard, 13 August 1928.

The photo showing the doctor and contestant Branch used the term a “perfection of pulchritude,” that last word simply meaning “beauty.” It also, along with others published in press accounts, featured Wood’s method of determining the proper alignment:

In examining applicants, Dr. Wood marks the shoulders and back with a triangle within a circle, to determine the proportion of bone angles and pulchritudinous curves. Miss Lou Branch was one who graded particularly high in this test.

On 12 August, there was a parade for the contest at Venice and the Venice Vanguard reported that, “seventy-five exceptionally beautiful girls, in bathing suits ofvarious colors, cut away in the back to a degree that shocked the censors but thrilled the general public” paraded before the judges at the Venice Ballroom. Each wore a bronze medal certifying them as finalists, but the winner was 19-year old Ruth Harschler of Huntington Park, who the Los Angeles Times reported was “pronounced the possessor of a 100 per cent perfect back.” The two-time contestant, who was runner-up in 1927, told the paper she “had spent much time since last year in following scientific principles of back development to put her in shape for the event.”

Runners-up included Iris Adrian of Hollywood, Los Angeles resident Patsy O’Day, and Patricia Patrick, also of Hollywood. A personality prize went to Adrian Markova, again of Hollywood, while the perfect figure award was bestowed on Alta Faulkner of Los Angeles. Trophies were granted in categories of hair color (blonde, brunette, and red-headed) and for a children’s division.

The conventions and “back beauty” contest continued for close to fifteen more years, while a separate perfect baby contest was also held in the early part of the year for some time. Wood announced in November 1929, just after the crash of the stock market in New York heralded the onset of the Great Depression, that a new chiropractic college, pegged at a $500,000 cost, was to be built in the Hollenbeck Heights area of Boyle Heights, though that project was shelved as the economy worsened.

Times, 3 July 1947.

A frequent, though unsuccessful, candidate for political office (city council, county board of supervisors, and Congress), Wood remained a prominent figure in local and national chiropractic circles through the Great Depression and World War II. In July 1947, a year after he retired, he was in Greeley, Colorado, his home state, on a lecture tour when he was suddenly stricken, perhaps by a heart attack, and died. Though it was said he was 65 years old, he was about ten years younger.

Chiropractic has come a long way in acceptance among the public and, to a lesser extent, the mainsteam medical community and Wood deserves remembrance as a pivotal figure in that branch of medicine in Los Angeles for many years. Amazingly, a 90-second Hearst newsreel clip of the 1928 “back beauty” contest has survived thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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