The Massachusetts Medical Society, the oldest continuously operating medical society in the United States, was established as a professional association of physicians by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in an Act of Incorporation, Chapter 15 of the Acts of 1781, just days after the Revolutionary War's climactic Battle of Yorktown.
One of the key powers that the state legislature gave the Society was the power to, in effect, license physicians. The president and fellows of the Society were given the power to "examine all Candidates for the Practice of Physic and Surgery … and if upon such Examination said Candidates shall be found skilled in their Profession, and fitted for the Practice of it, they shall receive the Approbation of the Society."
A written public notice in 1781 by John Warren, one of the Society's 31 founding members, provides an important additional intention of the founding members.
"The design of the institution," he wrote, "is to promote medical and surgical knowledge, inquiries into the animal economy & the promotion & effects of medicine." In time, the power to license was assumed by the Commonwealth. Yet the missions of education and advocacy continue to guide the Society's activities today, more than 200 years later.
The Public's Health
In 1842, the Massachusetts Medical Society, in concert with the American Statistical Association and the American Academy of Arts and Science, led the effort to establish a statewide system to collect and publish vital statistics of the Commonwealth. In a memorial to the state legislature calling for passage of the act, a committee established by the Medical Society stated:
"Many of the causes of disease, as they affect different communities engaged in a great variety of occupations, can only be ascertained by observations on an extensive scale, far beyond the reach of individual research. An accurate return of deaths from the different sections of the state, for a series of years, would greatly aid in the investigation of these causes, and would doubtless do much towards enabling us to find means for the removal of some of them."
The result was the passage of the first state vital statistics registration act in the United States. This act would serve as a model for other states as they began to establish their own systems of registration.
The Massachusetts Medical Society continued to serve the public's interest throughout the nineteenth century. In 1861 the Medical Society petitioned the legislature to establish a State Board of Health for the "purposes of looking after the sanitary interests of the people." It would take eight more years before the legislature established the State Board of Health, which later became the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The incorporators of the Medical Society in 1781 envisioned a Society that would "engage in the publication and distribution of journals and periodicals to be devoted primarily to the science and practice of medicine and to conduct educational programs." In 1812, John Collins Warren, M.D., who later became president of the Medical Society (1832), established The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and the Collateral Branches of Science. In 1828 this journal merged with the Medical Intelligencer (established in 1823) and became the weekly Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. In 1914 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal became the official organ of the Medical Society and began publishing the Medical Society's proceedings. In 1921 the Medical Society purchased the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal for one dollar.
One hundred years after its founding, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal's name was changed in 1928 to The New England Journal of Medicine. The Journal has become the premier medical publication in the world, achieving a position in medical publication that could not have been imagined by the MMS incorporators in 1781.
In 1804, the MMS began sponsoring its Annual Oration. The historic purpose of the oration is to inform physicians of issues such as "the histories of epidemics, tables of births and deaths, diaries of the weather, etc." While the original theme has expanded considerably through the years, the essence of the oration remains to inform Massachusetts physicians of issues pertinent to current medical practice.
See the list of orators and their dissertations from 1804 to the present ››
In 1969, through an act of the state legislature, the Society updated its mission to read: "The purposes of the Massachusetts Medical Society shall be to do all things as may be necessary and appropriate to advance medical knowledge, to develop and maintain the highest professional and ethical standards of medical practice and health care, and to promote medical institutions formed on liberal principles for the health, benefit and welfare of citizens of the commonwealth."
Today, the Massachusetts Medical Society continues to advocate for patients and physicians. In recent years, the Society has assumed a leadership role in public health, health system reform, and the quality of health care and patient safety. With membership that has grown from 70 members in 1781 to more than 23,000 members today, the Massachusetts Medical Society continues to serve the citizens and the physician community of Massachusetts.