- Policing the Social Boundaries of the American Medical Association, 1847-70
- Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
- Oxford University Press
- Volume 60, Number 2, April 2005
- pp. 170-195
- View Citation
- Additional Information
In May 1870 the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to deny the admission of black delegates and their white colleagues to the national meeting in Washington, D.C. Historians of race and medicine have customarily viewed this decision as marking a crucial milestone in the formation of the nexus between racism and the development of the American medical profession in the era after the Civil War (1861-64). This study recasts this narrative by locating the 1870 decision in relation to the antebellum practices of the association and their social consequences for American medicine. It argues that the viability of the AMA as the national voice of the profession was critically dependent on rejecting racial equality. Indeed, at a moment when the question of the abolition of slavery polarized the nation, the AMA was founded in 1847 to create a voluntary professional organization, national in scope, dedicated to raising the standards of medical training and practice. To this end, the AMA elected presidents and selected host cities for annual meetings in the North, South, and West. Seven out of the fourteen meetings and six out of fourteen presidents were from slave and/or border states. These institutional practices together with the representation of blacks as different and enjoying an appropriate status as slaves grounded the national identity of the profession in black subordination. Similarly, the gendered discourses about healing and practices of female exclusion privileged medical authority as male by drawing on and reinforcing patriarchy. In the wake of the war, leaders hoped to restore the national character of the organization by resuming antebellum practices. In response to the new possibilities for blacks in medicine—as represented by the biracial National Medical Society—the AMA took steps to vigorously police the racial boundaries of the national profession. As this study will show, the 1870 decision reflected the logic of the racial politics at the heart of the association's antebellum past and would loom large in its future.