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Our Founder, Nathan Smith Davis

Nathan Davis, MD

Born in 1817, Nathan Smith Davis founded the American Medical Association when he was just thirty years old. He received his medical training at the Medical College of Western New York and through apprenticeships with individual physicians, as was the custom in the mid-nineteenth century. He received the degree Doctor of Medicine in January 1837, just a few days past his twentieth birthday.

As a young doctor in western New York in 1844, Davis was elected to serve in the New York Medical Society, where he worked to improve medical education and licensure. A year after his election, Davis introduced a resolution endorsing the establishment of a national medical association to "elevate the standard of medical education in the United States." Though considered "impractical, if not utopian" by some, Davis and others led the establishment of the AMA in the following year, 1847.

In 1849 Davis accepted a professorship in Physiology and Pathology at Rush Medical College in Chicago. In 1858 Davis left Rush to form a new medical school, the Medical Department of Lind University, also in Chicago. In 1862 the medical school became the Chicago Medical College, and in 1892 it became the Northwestern University Medical School.

Davis served the AMA throughout his professional life, attending 47 of the first 50 annual meetings. He was elected president of the Association during the Civil War, in 1864-65; and in 1883 he was named the first editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Works authored by Nathan Davis include the History of Medical Education and Institutions in the United States, from the First Settlement of the British Colonies to the Year 1850, History of the AMA, and the History of the Code of Medical Ethics.  These monographs can be found in the AMA Archives digital collections.

Davis practiced until his death in 1904 at the age of 87. At least two Chicago area landmarks bear his name: Davis Street in Evanston and The Nathan Davis Elementary School located at 39th and Sacramento in Chicago.  Today, the AMA annually solicits nominations for the Dr. Nathan Davis Awards for Outstanding Government Service.  These awards, named for the founder, are recognized nationally as one of the most prestigious honors extended to elected officials and career government employees for outstanding endeavors that advance public health.