Georgia Medical Society
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Georgia Medical Society Celebrates 200th Anniversary

The Georgia Medical Society was constituted on December 12, 1804 and has been an active county medical society since that date. As such, the Georgia Medical Society was the first chartered medical society in the state of Georgia. Georgia was first a colony and then a young state for 70 years before the charter of the Society was granted. The Georgia Medical Society is the oldest county medical society in existence at the present time in the United States and the present membership is approximately 500 physicians practicing in the counties of Chatham, Effingham, Bryan, McIntosh and Long.

The first president of the Society was Noble Wimberly Jones who was a child when he came to the colony of Georgia with his family. Noble Jones, his father, had served as a physician for the colonist after Dr. William Cox, an Englishman, died of consumption. Cox had been the ship's surgeon on the Anne and Noble Jones had watched and assisted him during the crossing. Such was his medical training. As was common in those times, Noble Wimberly Jones served an apprenticeship under his father. He recognized the weakness of the apprenticeship system, so prevalent in America then and encouraged physicians with formal medical education to come to Savannah. Dr. Jones lived on Wormsloe Plantation on the Isle of Hope which is now a historic site and museum. He was a Revolutionary War hero and a champion of American Liberty. Dr. Noble Wimberly Jones was known as "The Morning Star of the Revolution."

In 1801, due to the spread of smallpox, the physicians of Savannah offered to vaccinate the poor population free of charge. After it's founding, the Georgia Medical Society, recognizing the significance of the vaccinations in deterring the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic, pushed for mandatory vaccination. They were successful in 1816 and vaccination was then made compulsory.

In 1804 the physicians of the Georgia Medical Society helped to found and staff the Savannah Hospital, which today is Candler Hospital. Along with the GMS, Candler is celebrating its bicentennial this year as a leader in healthcare in Savannah.

In 1817, the physicians of the GMS had great concerns about further outbreaks of yellow fever. Convinced that there was a connection between the wetlands of the local rice fields and the fever, they tried to convince local plantation owners to drain the wetlands. After their attempts failed, they took up shovels and began to dig drainage ditches. They were all promptly arrested and later released. In 1821 because of the alarm over the continuation of the yellow fever epidemic, a Board of Health was organized and members of the Society acted as Health Officers. Attempts to drain the rice fields continued in frustration until 1870 when the physicians secured the removal of rice culture from the fields near the city. Rice planters were paid $40 an acre to change their rice culture from wet to dry. This was the beginning in America of the first systematic and continued drainage of known sources of infection.

The Society was active in encouraging the passage of laws that required licensure of physicians. In 1821 an Act passed by the State Legislature authorized the Georgia Medical Society to examine candidate physicians and issue state medical licenses to those found suitable. This Act was good from January 1822 to 1826 when a general license law for medical practice was passed for the State of Georgia. This was the forerunner of the Composite Board of Medical Examiners. The Medical Ethics Act forbade members of the profession to consult with a quack and to expel any member who challenged or accepted a challenge to duel another member in a professional dispute.

In 1833 the Georgia Medical Society helped to found and staff the Georgia Infirmary, the first hospital and clinic for free blacks and slaves in the United States. The Georgia Infirmary was recently reopened by Candler Hospital.

The Society was active in the development of a local medical school to train more physicians for the area. The Savannah Medical College was chartered in 1838 but the faculty was not organized until 1852. In January 1853 the building was built on the corner of Habersham and Taylor streets out of a fund of $40,000 that Dr. R. D. Arnold, the president of the Trustees, and his colleagues had given. The first classes were held in the 1853-1854 term. There were 36 students but only six graduated. In that same year, Savannah suffered the second outbreak of the dreaded yellow fever. Thereafter, the professors lectured to full classes. The college closed during the Civil War as many of the faculty served in the military and the facility was used to care for soldiers. The school opened again in 1866 and continued until 1881 when it failed because of inadequate funding.

In reaction to the physicians who established the Savannah Medical College another group of physicians who were also members of the Georgia Medical Society formed a second medical school in Savannah. The Oglethorpe Medical College graduated its first class in 1856 and operated out of a large house at Yamacraw. Dr. Richard Nunn an 1854 graduate of the Savannah Medical College joined the faculty. This school also later fail due to inadequate funding.

Some History ImageIn 1850, Dr. Richard D. Arnold was appointed by the Society as a delegate at a meeting in Macon, Georgia to form a state medical society. He was chairman of the Committee that wrote its first Constitution and in 1851 served as president of the newly formed Medical Association of Georgia. He was also active in founding the American Medical Association and served as its first secretary and later as the vice president. Dr. Arnold served as the mayor of Savannah and surrendered the city to General William Sherman in 1864. This occurred after General Sherman defeated the Confederate forces at Fort Pulaski. This was the first ever battle where rifled cannons were employed, allowing the Union forces to destroy the fortifications while remaining outside the range of the traditional cannons protecting the fort. General Sherman later presented the city of Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864.

The members of the Society were called fellows and at the anniversary meeting that was held the first Saturday in January, they would march to the City Exchange where the orator delivered a speech to the doctors and the general public. Topics often dealt with public health issues.

The Georgia Medical Society helped to found and staff St. Joseph's Hospital in 1874. In 1971, St. Joseph's Hospital moved to its current location on the south side of Savannah. The original site of the St. Joseph's Hospital on Taylor Street has been converted into the Rose of Sharon apartments.

The Georgia Medical Society stood in the front line against epidemics of yellow fever, Dengue fever, dysentery, measles, cholera, polio, and whooping cough, which plagued the citizens of Savannah in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Georgia Medical Society also provided health surveys in Savannah and in surrounding areas for nutrition, tuberculosis, hookworm, venereal disease and maternal/child health in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Richard Shryock, a history professor from Duke University was stationed in Savannah during World War I. While here, he met Dr. V. H. Bassett and discussed the plans of Duke to open a medical school after the end of the war. Dr. Bassett befriended Shryock and developed an interest in helping with the effort at Duke. As a result, in 1932, the Georgia Medical Society donated 8,000 volumes of medical textbooks and journals to the Duke University School of Medicine to form the nucleus of the Duke Library. In celebration of the Society's 200th Anniversary a plaque was placed in the library at Duke University on October 9, 2004 denoting this contribution.

The Georgia Medical Society assisted in the founding and staffing of the U.S. Public Health Service's Venereal Disease Clinic in Savannah. This is where the VDRL (Venereal Disease Research Laboratory) test was invented and refined. This test was the standard test for syphilis detection for many years. The Venereal Disease program was later transferred to Atlanta as the Communicable Disease Clinics and is now known as the Center for Disease Control.

The Society was active in forming the Savannah Cancer Clinic; a mental hygiene organization and promoting a law for proper registration for births and deaths. Dr. Daniel J. McCarthy was the only member of the Georgia Medical Society to lose his life in combat in World War II. He was killed in February 1945 on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima.

In 1952, the Society was active in helping to develop and later build Memorial Medical Center. This was developed specifically to bring medical education and specialty care into the community. It now has a house-staff of over 100 and approximately three-fourths of the MMC graduates remain in the region to practice medicine.

In May 1954, the Society approved the fluoridation of the city's water supply. This has helped reduce the rate of dental caries in the community.

In 1957, with the fear of a national polio epidemic, the Society members participated in immunization all people of under 40 years of age for polio using the Salk vaccine. Because of the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in the region, in 1969, the Society did a collaborative study on stroke in Savannah. This became known as the Community Cardiovascular Council and extensively studied the disease in the area. Dr. John Elliott, one of the founding members, was awarded MAG's Hardermann Cup for his pioneer work and leadership in this effort.

In 1980, the Society was active in HIV care from the early recognition of the AIDS epidemic.

The Georgia Medical Society sponsored medical care for the yachting venue of the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

The Georgia Medical Society has strived diligently to offer educational programs for the community such as mini-Internship programs for members of Leadership Savannah Chamber of Commerce program; High School Student Preceptorship programs offered to seniors selected from public high schools who are interested in becoming physicians; Healthcare Heroes programs for members of the community who are recognized for their contribution to healthcare. The Society installed MAG's Growing Healthy program into 17 Savannah elementary schools. This program teaches preventative health for students from kindergarten to fifth grade.

The Georgia Medical Society began the first local programs on bioterrorism education in 1997.

The Georgia Medical Society has worked with the Medical Association of Georgia on many important issues affecting heaIthcare for Georgia citizens over the history of both organizations. These include the repeal of "Healthcare Compare" in the 1990s, scope of practice issues, and most recently, tort reform.

Members of the Georgia Medical Society who have served as presidents of the Medical Association of Georgia are: Drs. Richard D. Arnold, Phineas Miller Kollock, W. M. Charters, J. G. Thomas, J. C. LeHardy, W. H. Elliott, H. H. Martin, Ralston Lattimore, John W. Daniel, William R. Dancy, William H. Myers, Cornelius F. Holton, Lee Howard Sr., Walter E. Brown, John Kirk Train Jr., Carson B. Burgstiner, Joe L. Nettles and Roland S. Summers.