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AMA removes bust of founder from public display over racist past

Founder Dr. Nathan Davis' history of discriminatory practices has led to the removal of his likeness from the group's Chicago headquarters.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

In an attempt to come to terms with an intolerant past, the American Medical Association has removed a bust of their founder from AMA headquarters in Chicago, citing a history of racism that CEO and EVP Dr. James Madara said no longer reflects the organization's values.

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted racial disparities in spheres of life from healthcare to the criminal justice system, causing organizations to come to terms with sometimes imperfect pasts.

As drafter of the 1845 resolution that ultimately led to the establishment of the AMA, Dr. Nathan Davis is commonly thought of as the organization's founder. He has been commonly been referred to as its "father" over the course of its 174-year history.

Through a modern lens, however, it's easy to see how many of Davis' stances and actions furthered inequities and injustices that harmed patients and excluded minority physicians from the AMA's ranks.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Madara detailed some of those actions in a blog post published today. Davis, said Madara, considered himself responsible for holding together the AMA as a national governing body of medicine in the years after the Civil War.

His strategy for doing so was to explicitly exclude women and Black physicians from representation in the AMA House of Delegates, thus appeasing many state and local medical societies who barred all but white men from their membership.

Perhaps the most striking example of Davis' discriminatory practices occurred when a physician group composed of both Black and white physicians appealed to join the AMA House of Delegates.

Other AMA physicians supported membership for this integrated group, but Davis blocked the acceptance through parliamentary maneuvers, thereby blocking integration and doubling down on racist policies for AMA membership by leaving admission standards to regional medical societies. In many cases, these societies banned participation of women and Black physicians.

This would remain AMA policy until race- and gender-based discrimination was officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Dr. Davis made considerable and important contributions to medicine in his long career," said Madara, "but his decisions at the AMA, coming in a crucial period of reconciliation for America, severely limited opportunities for Black and women physicians. The decisions silenced their voices in organized medicine, and led to a host of inequities and injustices in healthcare that remain today."

Until recently, a bust of Davis sat in a glassed-in enclosure at AMA headquarters. The bust has been removed from public view and has been placed in archives, where it will serve with other educational materials. 

The AMA has also removed Davis' name from an award the organization gives annually to honor individuals for outstanding government service.

"Honest self-examination is a critically important step to better understanding ourselves, to heal old wounds, and to take corrective actions to address ongoing societal harms," said Madara.

THE LARGER TREND

In 2008, the AMA concluded a three-year study on the racial divide in organized medicine and publicly apologized for its past discriminatory practices against Black physicians.

"The AMA's apology was never intended to be the final word on the subject of race for our organization," said Madara. "In fact, the AMA called it 'a modest first step toward healing and reconciliation.' This is a journey of reflection and action that continues."
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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