A Brief History of the Pennsylvania Medical Society

On April 11, 1848, 61 physicians from throughout Pennsylvania met in Lancaster for a “convention of medical men.” They planned to create a state medical society and elected their first president.

The following April, 31 physicians made the same journey to consider pressing public health, ethical, and legislative issues. The members crafted initiatives that would set the fledgling organization’s direction for the next century and more.

The early years

Physicians’ strong concerns with the ethics of their profession are apparent in records of those early years.

For example, in 1850 the Society condemned “collusion” between physicians and apothecaries. Concerns with safeguarding medical educational and professional qualifications were voiced over the decades, along with the urgent need for physician leadership and activism.

During its first century, the Society spearheaded many advancements like the passage of a bill for statewide registration of vital statistics, the creation of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the appointment of a state commissioner of public health.

The last 50 years

Physicians entered a modern era of medicine following the world wars with unbridled optimism toward public health and the strength of a thriving profession.

A 1955 radio script from the Society’s “Safeguard Your Health” program notes, “Yes, medicine has made much progress in the past 40 years … so much so that some doctors feel that medicine before this period can be considered as medicine practiced in the Dark Ages.”

Medical discoveries and public health strides painted an optimistic picture of medicine. Forty years prior, diphtheria killed 2,438 people in Pennsylvania; by the mid 1950s, less than 10 per year died. Whooping cough took 1,550 lives in 1915; in 1954, only 17 died in the state.

Similar advances occurred for tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and other diseases. Public health education played a major role, along with medical advances, in these victories for medicine. Throughout the ‘50s and 60s, the State Society was a leader in public health education.

The emergence of medical liability issues

In the mid-’70s, the overriding focus for Pennsylvania physicians during this transitional decade was the medical liability insurance crisis. A hostile tort system caused liability insurers to leave Pennsylvania, but the physician community rallied to form a physician-owned insurance company—the Pennsylvania Medical Society Liability Insurance Company (PMSLIC).

In July 1975, with the cost of medical liability insurance rising, the Society’s House of Delegates held a special session to deal solely with this issue. That same year, the Health Care Services Malpractice Act was signed into law, stabilizing the insurance market by creating the Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe Loss Fund (CAT Fund).

Medical liability reform continues to be a persistent issue today. Physicians scored a major victory with the passage of a tort reform law, Act 13 of 2002. Though there is still work to be done, Pennsylvania physicians have felt the benefits of this law, especially from new requirements for expert witnesses and where lawsuits may be filed. The cost of medical liability insurance has declined in the last decade, but it remains higher than in many other states.

Today: A broadened and balanced strategy

While medical liability and political advocacy remain key goals, the Medical Society is now pursuing a broad mission. It strives to balance its work for politics and public policy, medical practice, and patients and public health.

Most recently, the Medical Society began working to reinforce the basic tenets of medical professionalism through its Institute for Good Medicine. The Institute celebrates the best of the medical profession and encourages physicians to become mentors, volunteers, and leaders.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society also has taken a leadership role in analyzing the status of medicine in Pennsylvania, compiling and reporting data on the state’s physician workforce, increasing demand for health care, and overwhelming physician workload.

This data confirmed what we’ve long known—the face of medicine continues to change rapidly.

More and more physicians are taking jobs with groups or health systems rather than running their own practices. The diversity of the profession is increasing. Women equal or outnumber men in medical school classes, and people of all races and ethnicities have joined the ranks of the medical profession.

The Medical Society will continue to evolve with the profession, working to communicate with and serve physicians of today and tomorrow.