Chicago chiropractor took on the American Medical Association in the mid-1970s
Chester Wilk, who was 91, died Thursday at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
When Chester Wilk was a kid growing up in the city, a Polish fortune-teller once told him he would become “very famous” pursuing a cause.
“Mrs. Budek,” as the young Chester knew her, turned out to be right. That fame came many years later, during an epic legal battle against one of the nation’s most powerful medical organizations — a fight in which one of his allies was a secret source who went by the name “Sore Throat.”
Mr. Wilk, a Chicago chiropractor who took on the American Medical Association in the mid-1970s and whose perseverance helped expose that organization’s attempts to destroy his profession, died Thursday at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. Mr. Wilk was 91.
“The suit was without a doubt one of the most important pieces of litigation that changed the trajectory of the advancement of the profession,” said Lou Sportelli, a recently retired chiropractor who lives in Pennsylvania and who worked with Mr. Wilk in the fight against the AMA.
Mr. Wilk, who was born in Chicago but lived most of his life in Park Ridge, discovered roadblocks early on in his career: Chiropractors routinely were denied access to hospital facilities, say, to order X-rays for a patient. They found it almost impossible to get reimbursement from health insurers.
“He ran into discrimination. He suspected a conspiracy on the part of the American Medical Association,” said Howard Wolinsky, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter whose book on the subject, “Contain and Eliminate: The American Medical Association’s Conspiracy to Destroy Chiropractic,” was published in 2021.
Mr. Wilk took on the AMA at a time when other chiropractors were afraid to do so.
“He had tunnel vision. A lot of people didn’t like him because he was super-focused and pushy and angry. It takes people like that to sometimes get things done,” Wolinsky said.
One of Mr. Wilk’s three daughters, Kimberly Wilk, said the work consumed him. His home office desk was heaped with paperwork connected to investigating the AMA.
“That was his biggest life’s mission … to make sure that chiropractic care was available to everyone. He really believed in the chiropractic profession and how it can help so many people,” said Kimberly Wilk, who lives in Bend, Oregon.
Mr. Wilk wasn’t alone. In 1975, he received a collect call from a secret source who called himself “Sore Throat.” The source would later provide copies of documents — in an unmarked envelope — that, Mr. Wilk said, confirmed his suspicions, including the AMA’s secret creation of its “Committee on Quackery.”
Mr. Wilk and four other chiropractors eventually filed a federal lawsuit, aimed at exposing the AMA’s efforts, Wolinsky said.
“Once we realized that this was an absolutely clandestine plan to contain and eliminate an entire profession, something had to be done,” Sportelli said.
The legal battle dragged on for 17 years, with the judge in the case eventually issuing an opinion that essentially agreed with the chiropractors’ assertions. The judge called for the conspiracy to stop. The publication of the judge’s opinion in the Journal of the American Medical Association — and the unflattering portrayal of the AMA — led to changes in how the medical profession treated chiropractors, Wolinsky said.
“They didn’t get everything they wanted,” Wolinsky said. “But chiropractors are doing research alongside MDs now. They are in practice together. But you still see examples of the prejudice, including in the Chicago area.”
Sportelli said of the court’s opinion: “When the [medical] membership saw that, they were embarrassed about what their organization did. And it was a turning point. ... Pretty soon, hospital privileges were opened up, and they didn’t anymore petition for insurance companies to deny reimbursement. So the world changed essentially when the opinion was finally rendered and published.”
In a written statement, the American Medical Association said Friday: “The current collaborative relationship between the American Medical Association and chiropractic profession is far removed from the history of 60 or 70 years ago and has long reflected that physicians and chiropractors work side-by-side as members of the patient care team.”
In addition to Kimberly Wilk, Mr. Wilk’s survivors include daughters Cathy Bryla of Park Ridge and Cynthia Issel, who lives in California, and four grandchildren.
Information about funeral services was not immediately available.