Dr. Chester A. Wilk, the chiropractor recognized for his efforts as the lead plaintiff taking on the American Medical Association (AMA) in a landmark legal case, died April 21, 2022, at Advocate Lutheran Hospital, Park Ridge, Illinois. He was 91.
The 1987 pro-chiropractic verdict in the antitrust case Wilk v. American Medical Association (AMA) et al. was a pivotal moment in the profession’s history, occurring in an era when chiropractors in the United States were subjected to prejudice and discrimination by the AMA and 10 co-defendants acting as part of political medicine.
Dr. Wilk’s epic battle was detailed in the recent book, Contain and Eliminate: the American Medical Association’s Conspiracy to Destroy Chiropractic, written by Howard Wolinsky and published in 2021.
Cleveland University-Kansas City President, Dr. Carl S. Cleveland III, acknowledged the challenge that Wilk was willing to pursue.
“While our professional forefathers campaigned for ‘health freedom’ and the ‘right of the sick to get well’ by the doctor of their choice, political medicine branded us as ‘rabid dogs’ and spent millions on false publicity campaigns to convince patients that chiropractors were a menace to public health,” Cleveland said. “We will never know just how many patients lingered in pain and suffering because political medicine had frightened them away from seeing a doctor of chiropractic.”
The legal battle that had begun in 1976 culminated in a 1987 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Getzendanner that the American Medical Association, along with its co-defendants, had engaged in an unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade “to contain and eliminate the chiropractic profession.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in 1990.
“The patients whose lives have been changed by chiropractic are the true beneficiaries of this landmark legal victory,” Cleveland said.
The impact of Wilk v. AMA was massive, as the verdict and subsequent ruling in the appeal helped lead to the inclusion of chiropractors as part of interprofessional healthcare. The AMA’s code of ethics now allows its members to be free to choose to refer patients to doctors of chiropractic.
In a review of the case published in the September 2021 Journal of Chiropractic Education, Dr. Frank Painter reflected on what has changed since the case was settled.
“Since that time,” the article noted, “there has been a substantial increase in collaboration among healthcare professions throughout the world. If we are to move beyond previous events, we must recognize the discord, learn from past mistakes, strive to find common ground, and work together to find a path to tolerance and harmony. We should do this not only for ourselves but also for the patients and the public that we serve.”
Cleveland witnessed chiropractic’s struggle; he watched his great-grandmother, grandfather, grandmother, mother, and father, among other chiropractic leaders, strive to advance the profession.
“Chester Wilk stood up, spoke out, and told the truth about chiropractic and the AMA’s anti-chiropractic propaganda,” Cleveland said. “He served on the postgraduate faculty at Cleveland Chiropractic College for many years. He had a tenacious commitment to telling the chiropractic story and a willingness to confront the bigotry and injustice of political medicine toward our profession. The chiropractic profession will always be grateful for his leadership.”
Today, many chiropractors serve patients in community-based healthcare settings and are increasingly part of interdisciplinary and integrated practices. These practices bring together chiropractors, medical doctors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, and more to best serve the needs of their patients. This collaboration could not have been possible without the perseverance of Dr. Chester Wilk and his colleagues.