Nathan Smith Davis Biography (1817-1904)

medical educator, editor

Nathan Smith Davis was founder of the American Medical Association (AMA), serving twice as that organization's president, and also as founding editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Unlike most nineteenth-century American physicians, Davis was not born to wealthy parents. Instead, he was born in a log cabin, in Chenango County, New York. He had only six months of higher education before starting a medical apprenticeship in 1834. Davis helped pay for this apprenticeship by taking care of his instructor's cow and horse. In 1837, he graduated from The College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York. His thesis challenged the common belief at that time that oxygen combined with carbon in the lungs.

Following graduation, Davis entered general practice in the New York communities of Vienna and Binghamton. It was in Binghamton that Davis started his lifelong involvement in professional societies, beginning with his appointment to the Broome County Medical Society.

Davis worked to improve the quality and duration of medical education. Elected in 1844 to the New York Medical Society, he introduced a resolution callingfor a national medical association to "elevate . . . the standard of medicaleducation in the United States." Others had proposed such an association before him, but Davis's resolution was the first to succeed.

The fledgling organization met in New York City on May 5, 1846, with delegates agreeing that a national group was needed to establish both uniform educational requirements and a medical code of ethics. After another preliminary meeting in Philadelphia in 1847, the AMA held its first meeting in Baltimore thefollowing year. Although he was barely 30 at the time of founding, Davis remained the AMA's central figure for the remainder of his career. Of the association's first 50 annual meetings, he was present at 47.

In 1849, Davis moved to Chicago's Rush Medical College as professor of physiology and general pathology. At the time, Chicago was a frontier community with no sewer system or general hospital. Davis was involved in establishing Chicago's Mercy Hospital and also created the Chicago Medical Society and the Illinois Medical Society. In 1859, Davis and some colleagues left Rush to startthe Medical Department of Lind University, which was reorganized in 1864 into the Chicago Medical College, and in 1870 into the medical school at Northwestern University. Davis served as president of the Chicago Medical College and as dean of Northwestern's medical department.

In 1870, he donated $3,000 to found the Dean's Dispensary, which provided free medical treatment to those unable to afford it. In addition, Davis helped establish Chicago's Washingtonian Home for Inebriates. Less lofty, however, were Davis's attitudes towards women and blacks. He argued that both should beexcluded from the AMA.

In 1883, when Davis was 66, he became the first editor of JAMA, when that weekly periodical was introduced to replace the AMA's yearly Transactions.

Davis was also involved in editing the Chicago Medical Journal, Chicago Medical Examiner, American Medical Temperance Quarterly, Northwestern Medical and Surgical Journal, and the Annalist, as well as the Ecletic Journal of Education and Literary Review.

He authored a number of books: A Textbook on Agriculture (1848), History of Medical Education and Institutions in the United States (1851),Clinical Lectures on Various Important Diseases (1873), Lectures onthe Principles and Practice of Medicine (1884), and The History of Medicine, With the Code of Ethics (1903). The latter work covered the history of American medicine more extensively that any other earlier attempt.

Throughout his career, Davis campaigned against consumption of alcohol, whichhe described as "a positive protoplasmic poison, directly impairing every natural structure and function of the living body in proportion to the quantityused, and the length of time its use is continued." At the time, whiskey andcod liver oil were commonly used as a treatment for tuberculosis, but research by Davis and a colleague found that patients treated with alcohol actuallyfared worse than those who did not receive it. In 1891, he founded the American Medical Temperance Society. He made controversial bids to ban alcohol from the AMA's annual banquets. When a testimonial dinner was held for him in 1901, Davis, then 84, proposed a toast to: "Pure disorders no man'sbrain; it fills no asylums or prisons; it begets no anarchy, but it sparklesin the dew drop."

He continued to practise medicine until he died at the age of 87.

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