A History of the Dutchess County Medical Society

The history of the Dutchess County Medical Society is one marked by both legal necessity and social and professional practicality. For over 200 years, the Society has found itself in a unique position within the region to affect not only the professional standing of its members, but also to improve the lives of community residents and to influence the outcomes of government agency decisions.

There is some indication that as early as 1736 there was a practicing physician in Poughkeepsie. However, the first definite evidence of a Dutchess County physician does not appear until 17 40. Of course, at this time many calling themselves 'doctor' held no formal qualifications. While some doctors practicing in the United States had attended one of the medical schools in Europe, most physicians in America were trained by serving a period of apprenticeship with an established physician. This custom changed in March of 1797 when the New York State legislature passed a law regulating the practice of physic and surgery in the State of New York. While there had been voluntary associations and societies of doctors prior to this, the 1806 Act made it necessary to create a formal medical society to enforce the laws of the State, leading to the foundation of the Dutchess County Medical Society in 1806.

Note, there was an urgency to form a society in order to protect the medical profession. 'We have no law to protect the lives of the King's subjects, from the malpractice of pretenders." New York State historian William Smith was referring to the widespread problem of inadequately qualified physicians practicing their "trade," and who often had no formal education or training.

The "Medical Act," law, enacted on April 4, 1806, gave local medical associations the status of medical and moral judges of its members, and required them to enforce state law and protect against illegal medical practitioners. County medical societies could "grant licenses and recognize diplomas granted by other States and Countries as well as those from the Regents of the University and Geneva Medical College.

In the Poughkeepsie Journal of August 12, 1806, appeared the following notice:
The Physicians of Dutchess have omitted to organize themselves into a society according to an act passed at the last session of the Legislature, they are requested to meet at Cunningham's Hotel, Poughkeepsie, On Saturday, the 2rJh of September, at 3 o'clock P.M. It is necessary that as large a number convene as possible.

And thus the Dutchess County Medical Society was born with Dr. Samuel Bard as its first president.

As of 1918, law required every medical practitioner to join the medical society in the county of his/her residence. At a meeting held in January 1823, the State Legislature allowed counties the power to deprive someone their right to practice medicine by a 2/3 vote by its members.

As far back as the Civil War of the 1860's, Society did in fact have trouble in gaining active members, as many members served as surgeons with the troops in combat. It was in 1870 when 3 the Society took a very active and important role in ensuring physicians obtain the respect they deserved in the US Navy. During the First World War, the Society strongly urged eligible physicians to take the Army exam so they could help their fellow colleagues overseas in their time of need.

In March 1906, 35 physicians founded the Dutchess County Medical Club. By April of that year, this organization had developed a constitution and a set of by-laws. In October 1909 the "Club" changed its name to the "Poughkeepsie Academy of Medicine," and the Dutchess County Medical Society allowed the Academy usage of its library to hold meetings. Although no meeting notes could be located for some time after 1920, it is interesting to note the "Academy" joined to become part of Dutchess-Putnam Medical Society (which lasted from 1916-1935).

In 1935 the Workman's Compensation Board of the Dutchess-Putnam County Medical Society was formed. Injured workers were given the option to see whatever physician they wished to see, as long as this physician was qualified. The Society played a major role by certifying the doctors' qualifications, as well as examining and licensing compensation bureaus. The Society also assisted in creating a fee schedule and acted as arbitrator between insurance companies and physicians. As the Society progressed through the ages, it played a critical role in the community's welfare. Through history, there were several monumental contributions towards protecting and enhancing public health:

  • Pass a resolution to ask the State Department of Health to provide and pay for free diphtheria and tetanus antitoxins to those who needed them or could not afford them.
  • Require all milk to be kept at a temperature of 50 degrees or less until delivered as well as requiring all milk be pasteurized that is supplied to the city.
  • Ensure that practitioners of most fields of medicine received adequate education and training to practice their particular trade.
  • Raising a fund of $30,000 for a tuberculosis hospital in 1909.
  • Advocating for a full time Health Officer to the Common Council in 1917.
  • Supported a resolution aiming eventually to eliminate pollution in the Hudson River and all other sources of water supply in 1929.
  • After the Korean War, the Society continued its educational efforts by sponsoring scholarships for nurses' training.

Summarized by Mary Lee Costa

The First Local Medical Society, ca. 1783