The ‘neurocalometer’ (NCM) is a device promoted from 1924 by BJ Palmer (the son of DD Palmer, the founder of chiropractic) which he claimed could locate subluxations. Even though it was useless for diagnosing anything, thousands of chiropractors swore by it and some use it to the present day. This enthusiast, for instance, justifies it by claiming that abnormal signals generated by spinal misalignments travel into the spinal cord along nerve fibers which connect directly to the part of the nervous system that controls blood flow in the skin. These abnormal signals disrupt the ability of the nervous system to keep the skin temperature even and balanced. The resulting temperature imbalance can be detected using the Neurocalometer or a similar device.
The history of the NCM is most revealing. BJ Palmer more or less forced his followers into a leasing agreement with the Palmer School of Chiropractic (PSC). The lease duration was 10 years, roughly the same amount of time as the patent rights on the device would last. “Leasees were required to charge patients ten dollars per NCM reading (a sum that is equivalent to charging >60 US$ for that service today). BJ’s historic speech at lyceum (August 24, 1924), “The Hour Has Struck”, provided the opportunity to announce: The price until midnight September 14th remains the same. Beginning tomorrow morning at eight o’clock $100 cash and 13 payments of $50 each, each month, and when $500 has been paid you will be entitled to your technique and your Neurocalometer .. . Those who pay the full cash of $500 in advance now get preferential position and delivery overall-time-payment contracts. The price after midnight of September 14th will raise to $2,200, or an increase of $700. The terms will then be $200 cash and $100 a month until $1,000 has been paid, at which time you will be entitled to your technique and your Neurocalometer … this same easy plan has gone out to the entire field …
This sales ploy was so successful that Western Union’s local cash reserves were apparently unable to keep pace with the hundreds of incoming contracts on September 14. The next day, BJ penned an article for the Fountain Head News (FHN) announcing a further increase, from $2,200 to $3,000 for the 10 year lease, and tentatively set to take effect on January 1, 1925. The NCM, he explained, has established itself, its earning values have been printed for your information, letters from users have been printed and distributed to you – it is no longer an unknown quantity. It has established itself . The price for the NCM eventually reached an initial fee of $3,500 and a monthly rental fee of $5. By comparison, an expensive car then costs $1,000, and a home could be purchased for $3,500.
BJ viewed the introduction of the NCM as a means of producing fundamental change throughout the chiropractic profession. From his perspective he was not merely marketing a device, but was organizing a straight chiropractic renaissance. BJ spoke frequently of his “BACK-TO-CHIROPRACTIC-NEUROCALOMETER MOVEMENT” He likened chiropractic to a cow, and asked: Whose cow is Chiropractic anyway? It is more my cow or your cow? Must I always stand at the feeding end? Can’t I get a glass of milk once in a while? Who is that man that speaks to me about the rights of the sick to get well? Who is that man that dares say I am the downfall of this profession? Do you know of any chiropractor adjusting for fifty cents when he could collect five dollars, just for the love of the rights of the sick to get well? Do you know of any reducing their price on the theory of their love for the rights of the sick to get well if he could get it?
BJ claimed that the NCM is a very delicate, sensitive instrument which, when placed upon the spine:
- Verifies the proper places for adjustments.
- It measures the specific degree of vertebral pressures upon nerves.
- It measures the specific degree of interference to transmission of mental impulses as a result of vertebral pressure.
- It proves the exact intervertebral foramina that contains bone pressure upon nerves.
- It proves when the pressure has been released upon nerves at a specific place.
- It proves how much pressure was released, if any.
- It verifies the differences between cord pressure or spinal nerve pressure cases.
- It establishes which cases we can take and which we should leave alone.
- It proves by an established record which you can see thereby eliminating all guesswork on diagnoses.
- It establishes, from week to week, whether you are getting well or not.
- It makes possible a material reduction in time necessary to get well, thus making health cheaper….
The NCM was not invented by BJ but by Dossa Dixon Evins, one of the lesser-known figures in chiropractic history. Evins was a vaudeville entertainer with his wife Billie, an inventor, electrical engineer, and a radio operator for the Secret Service during World War I. Yet, it was BJ who took the glory and the money: Along comes the Neurocalometer. You hear me tell much good about it. You hear me say that it is “THE MOST VALUABLE INVENTION OF THE AGE BECAUSE IT PICKS, PROVES AND LOCATES THE CAUSE OF ALL DIS-EASES OF THE HUMAN RACE.
Of course, BJ insisted that his claims were based on extensive scientific research: Experimental work on approximately a thousand cases had proven there are many subluxations in the spine which the X-Ray does not locate, causing pressure upon nerves. This instrument locates them. Experimental work also shows that by using the instrument as a check, results can be obtained in from one-fourth to one-half the time now necessary under the present method. In other words, should it take 100 adjustments to get a case well now, it would take only 25 to 50 to get the same case well using the new NEUROCALOMETER. So superior was the device that even BJ himself could not find subluxations as accurately as the NCM:. . . Eighteen months of education when focalized down to a pin point means where to pick majors and why . . . in 30 minutes the Neurocalometer can do more in picking correct majors than anybody attending school for 17 months, or more than I can do after 28 years.
However, not everyone was impressed and some chiropractors even objected openly to BJ and his machinations. The result was that the chiropractic profession split into:
- those who followed BJ’s instructions (the ‘straights’)
- and those who either could not afford to or were not convinced by BJ (the ‘mixers’).
Dissatisfaction with Palmer and with the “intimidation” policies of the Universal Chiropractors’ Association (UCA) had already been growing. Now it reached into the UCA to such an extent that BJ resigned to form (in 1926) the Chiropractic Health Bureau (today’s International Chiropractors’ Association). By 1930, the UCA and other organizations had merged to form the National Chiropractic Association, immediate predecessor of today’s American Chiropractic Association.
The years immediately following the NCM’s introduction were a a period of extraordinary prosperity for BJ and his PSC. Classes filled, debts were paid and plans for additional buildings were drawn; the prosperity would continue until the stock market crash of 1929, in which the Palmer family suffered substantial financial loss. As many as a thousand NCMs may have been leased in the first year; this suggests at least several millions of dollars in revenues, a fabulous sum in the 1920s. The chiropractic historian Keating stated that the NCM’s introduction provides a model of unethical promotions in health care.
The PSC eventually revived with the influx of veterans after World War 2. Rentals of the NCM (and derivative instruments) continued, and a firm core of true believers in BJ remained loyal. Today, the PSC continues to provide repair services for the NCM, although new contracts for the device ceased to be issued in 1990. Similar thermocouple devices remain popular among subluxation-based chiropractors and several models are still marketed.
A widely used chiropractic paediatrics textbook (Pediatric Chiropractic. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1998, pp 323-423) even advises that such devices are useful for examining new-borns: The purpose of skin temperature analysis (e.g. Temp-o-scope, Nervoscope) is to obtain objective neurological evidence of a vertebral subluxation complex [VSC]. . . .