Medical professional associations and societies are necessary for professional development. They also offer opportunities to collaborate, develop professional relationships, present papers, and learn techniques and treatments.
In Massachusetts, black physicians could join the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), established in 1791. MMS accepted its first black physician, John Van Surly DeGrasse, in 1854. Dr. DeGrasse’s papers are in the Degrasse-Howard Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Although state and local medical societies could choose to accept members of color, many did not. The American Medical Association (AMA) delegated membership decisions to the state level until the 1960s.
The AMA, founded in 1847 as a national medical association, was created amid a climate of racial tension and debate over the institution of slavery. The AMA did not overtly disallow physicians of color from becoming members, but incidents at the 1870 and 1872 national meetings led to a policy that effectively excluded African American members.
At the 1870 meeting of the AMA, the all-white Medical Society of the District of Columbia challenged the authenticity of the integrated Washington D.C. National Medical Society, claiming that it had been founded to undermine the Medical Society. The Washington D.C. National Medical Society maintained that it incorporated because the Medical Society of the District of Columbia would not accept physicians of color as members. During the meeting, the issue of two societies was debated, and the Washington D.C. National Medical Society members were excluded from membership in the AMA. John L. Sullivan, a physician from Massachusetts, proposed that the AMA adopt a policy of racial non-discrimination but his proposal was tabled after the meeting.
After another attempt to seat an integrated medical society delegation at the AMA’s 1872 national meeting, a policy was enacted in 1874 to change the structure of seating medical societies at the national convention. While in the past any medical society, school, or institution could send a delegation to the national convention, now state and local societies would determine which societies would be officially recognized by the AMA, and only one society was allowed to represent a given region. This policy excluded most African American members because many local societies practiced racial exclusion.
In response, several integrated medical societies were founded on a local level, including the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia, the Lone Star State Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association of Texas, the Old North State Medical Society of North Carolina, and the North Jersey National Medical Association.
After years of attempts by black physicians around the United States to integrate the AMA, the National Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists, and Pharmacists was created in 1895 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Association changed its name to the National Medical Association (NMA) in 1903. In 1908, the NMA began to publish the Journal of the National Medical Association. The credo of the organization, as laid out by the journal’s first editor Dr. C.V. Roman, is:
“Conceived in no spirit of racial exclusiveness, fostering no ethnic antagonism, but born of the exigencies of the American environment, the National Medical Association has for its object the banding together for mutual cooperation and helpfulness, the men and women of African descent who are legally and honorably engaged in the practice of the cognate professions of medicine, surgery, pharmacy and dentistry.”
For more information on the history of the National Medical Association, see Dr. Karen Morris’s thesis The Founding of the National Medical Association.
For a timeline on African American Physicians and Organized Medicine from 1846-1968, visit: https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/default/files/media-browser/public/ama-history/african-american-physicians-organized-medicine-timeline.pdf.