Origin of the Law ” To Incorporate Medical Societies for the purpose of Regulating the practice of Physic and Surgery, passed 4th April, 1806.” Read Sept. 10th, by Dr. Stearns.

The influence which medical societies have had upon the profession, and the general misapprehension of their origin, impart to this topic an interest which I trust will not be deemed inappropriate to the occasion of the present meeting. This interest is enhanced by the consideration, that the time will soon elapse when those who are concerned in originating this law will have passed the confines of time without having left a single record of the fact by which the numerous errors which have obtained publicity in our scientific journals might be corrected, and justice rendered to whom it is due.

From these publications I shall select the following paragraph from a biographical notice of Dr. Bruce in the 1st volume of Silliman’s Journal of Science: “Previous to the year 1806 the practice of Physic and Surgery in the State of New York was regulated by no public authority, and of course was not in the happiest condition to promote the respectability and usefulness of the profession. To remove as far as possible the existing circumstances, Dr. Bruce became an active agent, and in conjunction with Dr. Romayne and other medical gentlemen of New York, succeeded in establishing the State and County Medical Societies under the sanction of the Legislature. This act may be considered among the first efforts made in this country to reduce medicine to a regular science by investing the privileges of medical men in the body of the members of the profession.”

The President of the N. Y. County Med. Society, in his inaugural address for 1824, also states that this is the parent Society from which the other institutions of a similar character throughout the State have emanated. Without multiplying similar quotations to evince the error of public opinion, I take this occasion explicitly to state that neither Dr. Bruce, nor Dr. Romayne, nor this “Medical Society,” nor any physician then resident in the City of New York, had any knowledge of the preliminary measures which led to the formation of this law, or the most minute agency in procuring its passage through the Legislature. These measures were commenced exclusively in the County of Saratoga, with a view to reclaim the profession from that degradation and contempt to which it had been reduced by ignorance, professional cavils, and the grossest empiricism.

Those who witnessed the original and progressive settlement of the northern and western sections of this State since the year 1790, will recognize the mania that infatuated the emigrants from the east, and the ambitious projects formed by those who assumed the title of Doctor. Many who had never read a volume on medicine were suddenly introduced to an extensive practice, and to a reputation of such imposing authority as to control the opinions of their superiors in science, and to prescribe rules of practice for their government. Consultations were generally distinguished for gross controversies at the bedside of the patient, when life and health were often immolated to the ignorance, prejudices, or discordant theories of the contending physicians. Their skill was generally graduated by their ability to magnify the cures they had made.

Gratifying indeed would it be at this enlightened period to bear testimony to the total extinction of this relique of quackery, and to the abolition of that still more ridiculous and growing imposture, that indignity of our profession, which by the sign of a common vendor converts the medical office designed for the cure of all diseases into a private infirmary for curing those only which belong to a particular organ. But so great has been the change in public opinion that empirics now seldom boast of their intuitive knowledge, their magic incantations, or their initiation into the mysteries of Indian practice, but are compelled to assume the appearance of learning, and affix to their names the fictitious appendage of “M.D.” A proof that scientific physicians will always be patronized as the public mind becomes enlightened.

The ignorance of the practitioners had so obscured the science of medicine at the period referred to, that reflecting physicians united in the necessity of adopting vigorous means for a radical reform. In 1796 a series of numbers were accordingly published in the newspapers of Saratoga, which directed the attention of the profession to the subject of instituting medical societies, and ultimately led to the formation of a society in that county, consisting of 21 physicians. But so discordant were its materials, and so incompetent to sustain the character of a scientific institution, that the year of its formation became the period of its dissolution. This want of success did not prevent the renewal of future efforts. In Nov., 1805, another meeting was held, at which committees were appointed, and a resolution passed to invite the co-operation of the physicians of the adjoining counties of Washington and Montgomery. The following is a copy of the circular issued on that occasion:


Ballston, Nov. 7th, 1805.

Sir—At a meeting of the physicians of the County of Saratoga convened this day at the Court House in Ballston, for the purpose of devising means to improve the practice of medicine, we were appointed a committee to impart the object and wishes of that meeting to our professional brethren in the counties of Washington and Montgomery. In that character we beg leave to recommend to your earnest attention the necessity of adopting some vigorous measures for the suppression of empiricism, and the encouragement of regular practitioners. The evil calls loudly for the united efforts of all who sincerely wish to remove from that valuable science the imputation of quackery, under which, from the ignorance of some of its professors, it not unjustly labors. The wish of the meeting is to procure from the Legislature of the State their sanction to a Medical Society, and we request your attendance at the Court House in Ballston, on the 16th Jan’y next, at ten o’clock A. M., either in person or by a committee of your County, for the purpose of adopting the best means of obtaining an act of incorporation.

We remain, &c.

Wm. Patrick,  
John Stearns,
Grant Powell  Committee of Correspondence.

Pursuant to the notice in this circular, a delegation from these counties attended the adjourned meeting at the same place on the 16th January, 1806. A memorial to the Legislature was then reported, adopted and signed, and a committee of three, consisting of Dr. Fitch of Washington, Dr. Stearns of Saratoga, and Dr. Sheldon of Montgomery, were appointed to carry the same into effect. The committee from Saratoga and Montgomery attended the ensuing session of the Legislature, and fortunately for the cause of science, the latter gentleman, Dr. Alexander Sheldon, was that year elected Speaker of the House. Although the meeting at Saratoga did not contemplate the extension of the law beyond the limits of those three counties, the committee assumed the responsibility of making it general, and of extending its privileges to every county in the State. Accompanied with this explanatory view of the subject, they presented the memorial to the House of Assembly on the 25 th Feb’y, 1806, who referred it to a committee consisting of William Livingston and Isaac Sargeant, of Washington, Gordon Huntingdon, of Otsego, John Ely, of Greene, and Joel Frost, of Westchester. The majority of this comm. being medical men, favorably received the plan for a general law to extend the Act of Incorporation through the State, which they finally matured and reported to the House. The powerful opposition to this bill threatened its early and prompt rejection by a large majority. The Speaker, the committee, and several other members, gave it a very able and vigorous support. But notwithstanding all the exertions and political influence of its friends, the danger to which the tranquillity of the State would be exposed by the incorporation of forty distinct associations of physicians was so magnified by the opposition, and the impression thereby made upon the House was so great, that but feeble hopes were entertained of its success. At this critical juncture, when a decisive vote against the bill was every moment expected to be taken, the late Hon. Wm. P. Van Ness rose, its most eloquent and powerful advocate, and perhaps the pre-eminent powers of his parliamentary eloquence were never exerted with greater effect. He refuted the arguments of the opposition, portrayed the benefits to the profession and to the public in such glowing colors, and with so much energy and zeal that the opposition became feeble, the friends to the bill increased, and from that moment the successful issue was rendered certain. To his memory do the profession owe a monument of marble, with their gratitude deeply engraved upon its tablet.

On the first Tuesday of July, 1806, three months after the passage of the law, about twenty societies were organized pursuant to its provisions, and within two years scarcely a county in the State of any considerable population was without a duly organized medical society. But although the bill passed both Houses of the Legislature, it was subjected to such alterations and amendments as to sacrifice some of its best features, and to substitute others, some of which have been repealed while others remain a disgrace to our statute books. The public mind was not yet sufficiently enlightened to consent to the total extinction of quackery at one blow. Its friends sought a refuge for its remains under the section which exempts from the penalties of the law all whose practice is limited to the indigenous plants of our own country. Little did the Legislature imagine the latitude of the license they thereby conferred, or that by a single proviso they legalized the boldest empirics in the use of the most powerful means. It was like arming madmen with weapons of death. Until that proviso is repealed, the penalties of the law can never be enforced, and one of its prominent objects will be defeated. But when we reflect that this same Legislature at the same time granted $1,000 to a notorious quack for the disclosure of a ridiculous cure for the Hydrophobia, we are astonished that so much has been obtained. Another material defect arises from its being made the duty of the overseers of the poor to prosecute for all penalties, and to receive for their benefit all monies that may, be collected by such prosecution. The whole power must be conferred upon the Medical Society, and all the penalties and monies that may be collected should be deposited in its treasury. A fund will thus be accumulated by each Society, and an interest will consequently be felt, and a vigilance excited to detect every violation of the law, and to arraign before the bar of the public.

The powers delegated to the State Society are of the most interesting importance to the profession, and do not seem to have been duly appreciated by that body. While individual members of the profession have in each county society their local courts, the State Society constitutes a Medical Legislature and a Supreme Court of Errors, an appeal to which all may have recourse to as the last resort. It is also its duty to deliberate on the interests of the profession, and of each medical society under its jurisdiction, and to adopt the most efficient measures to promote the benefit of the whole. But excepting one session in 1809 of more than three weeks duration, so short have been its annual meetings at Albany, that these subjects have received either a very partial attention, or been totally disregarded. The Society has seldom done more than to hear the President’s Address, elect officers, and adjourn. I am aware of the full force of the objection that without funds the members are unable to sustain the expense of a protracted sojourn. But that great sacrifices must be incurred is well known to all who have done their duty in meliorating the ills of life. I feel, however, full confidence in the opinion that adequate funds might be obtained by uniting in a suitable representation to the Legislature. Such a representation once produced a general impression in favor of a bill reported to the Senate for 5,000 acres of land for benefit of the State Society, but at the critical moment when the bill was confidently expected to pass, a remonstrance from certain physicians defeated the great and important objects we had in view. It is by such collisions among members of the profession that we have occasion to regret the ill success of similar applications, and the imperfections of our medical laws—a regret in which there is reason to believe some who thus opposed the application for funds have since largely participated. By the aid of these and other amendments and alterations that might be suggested, I have no hesitation in asserting that quackery might be exiled from our State, and the profession restored to its own legitimate practice. The interests and the character of the profession and the public good require from each of its members, and from each medical society, a combined and mighty effort, an effort that cannot fail in obtaining from the Legislature everything that may be deemed important and necessary to elevate the profession to that commanding eminence to which it is justly entitled. Although much has been done to diffuse medical science, and to improve the healing art, much remains to be done to aid its onward march to its highest destiny. Neither principles, nor science, nor dignity of character should ever be sacrificed in our medical meetings to coalitions to promote the interested or ambitious views of individuals, of rival institutions, or of other sectional divisions in the profession. To make this Society the theatre of collisions between individuals, between contending parties, will prevent the designs of the institution, wasting its usefulness, and accelerate its own dissolution. Let the public be convinced that the promotion of science and the public good is the primary object we have in view, and their favors will be secured, the just expectations of the Legislature be fulfilled, and their future patronage be more liberally bestowed.

John Stearns.

Sept. 17th.—(Adjourned Meeting.)

Present—The President, Messrs. Cock, Peixotto, Beck, J. M. Smith, Manley, Hanson, Van Rensselaer, Willett, Rhinelander, Gilman, Dering, Dayton, J. K. Rodgers, Hickok, Stearns, Hibbard, Sterling, Jaques, Graves, and Watts.

The minutes of the last meeting were read and approved.

Drs. Stearns, from the comm. appointed to prepare amendments and alterations to the laws regulating the practice of physic and surgery in this State, made a report in part. After some discussions on the proposed amendments, the Society adjourned to meet on the 18th.

John J. Graves, Secy.