Medical Societies

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MEDICAL SOCIETIES. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American medical profession emerged in a distinct fashion from its European counterparts. Political autonomy was in its infancy in the newly liberated colonies, and American wariness of centralized authorities discouraged the involvement of Congress and state legislatures in the regulation of the profession. Few universities had yet been established on American soil, leaving medical education to occur in a haphazard fashion. Proprietary schools offering medical degrees for fees thrived in this unregulated environment, despite the fact that the training they provided was of a highly questionable nature. In addition, the entrepreneurial spirit of the young country encouraged innovation, and free market forces drove the development of diverse forms of health care practices. Practitioners with varying levels of knowledge and skill therefore competed with each other to treat the public.

The establishment of medical societies provided one means by which physicians could separate themselves from the variety of health practitioners and be among like-minded and equally qualified colleagues. Because the effects of free-market competition were most intense at the local community level, local societies were the first to form. Many local societies adopted the name of their state, and the majority of their members came from nearby communities. The New Jersey Medical Society, composed of physicians from Essex and Middlesex Counties, was the first to form in 1766 and was the only colonial medical society to survive the Revolution. Boston followed in 1780, quickly expanding to the Massachusetts Medical Society (1781) as additional physicians from nearby communities sought membership. The College of Physicians formed in Philadelphia (1787) and the physicians of Charleston formed the Medical Society of South Carolina in 1789.

By the mid-nineteenth century, due to competition from the irregular and homeopathic physicians, it was becoming necessary for regular physicians to organize on a national basis. In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was established as the first national association of practicing physicians. Its primary mission was to implement standards for physicians through a national reform of medical education. By 1901, the AMA reorganized to include a House of Delegates that included voting representatives from all state societies. In order to be a member of the AMA, a physician had to belong to the state medical society. Since county and state societies banned black physicians from becoming members until well into the twentieth century, these physicians were effectively barred from membership in the AMA as well. The first black physician delegate did not enter the AMA House of Delegates until 1949. In the late nineteenth century, therefore, black physicians formed their own medical societies at the local levels, consolidating to the National Medical Association in 1895. Recognizing the growing power of organized medicine in shaping medical policy for the country, the mission of the National Medical Society was to counter the discriminatory policies toward black physicians and black patients.

As scientific medicine began to produce more specialized knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, medical specialists began to form their own groups. The goal of these societies was generally the advancement of specialized medical knowledge. These specialty societies include: the American Academy of Ophthalmology (1896), American Society of Anesthesiologists (1905), American Society of Pediatrics (1930), American Society for Reproductive Medicine (1944), American College of Cardiology (1949), and the Society of Nuclear Medicine (1954). By the end of the twentieth century, nearly 3,000 medical societies existed in the United States, with physicians participating in city, county, state, and national medical societies.


Duffy, John. From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Rothstein, William G. American Physicians in the 19th Century: From Sects to Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Starr, Paul. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Karen E.Geraghty

See alsoMedical Profession .

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Medical Societies

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