A study of ancient and modern secret medical fraternities, Pamphlet

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Fraternity in Philadelphia (1819). — Coming down to modern times, we are reminded of a medical fraternity in Philadelphia, in 1819-20. At the University of Pennsylvania Chapter Banquet, in 1899, Brother H. C. Wood detailed to us in his post-prandial address the history of a secret medical fraternity that existed in Philadelphia, the facts concerning which were given to him by Professor George B. Wood, M. D.

In 1819-20, some of the most prominent members of the medical profession became embroiled in a bitter fight. They vented their spleen by writing scurrilous letters, published broad-sides, and reviled one another in articles published in the newspapers. Finally a noted professor caned a fellow-practitioner in the public streets. A challenge followed the caning, and a duel was averted only by the prompt arrest of the two parties by an officer of the law.

At this juncture, some of the peaceable, dignified, self-respecting, and thoughtful physicians, tired of the undignified proceedings, resolved to put a stop to the wrangling of these belligerants, feeling that it was detrimental to the good name and influence of the profession at large. A secret medical fraternity was organized, and a plan was formed which soon put a stop to all the trouble. This oath-bound body made the offending physicians feel that the profession was against them, and that they were in the minority and very unpopular. Soon the atmosphere was cleared, and good feeling was restored; and, as the result, the medical profession in Philadelphia since that time probably has been more harmonious than in any large city in the world.

Fraternity in Philadelphia (1819). — Coming down to modern times, we are reminded of a medical fraternity in Philadelphia, in 1819-20. At the University of Pennsylvania Chapter Banquet, in 1899, Brother H. C. Wood detailed to us in his post-prandial address the history of a secret medical fraternity that existed in Philadelphia, the facts concerning which were given to him by Professor George B. Wood, M. D.

In 1819-20, some of the most prominent members of the medical profession became embroiled in a bitter fight. They vented their spleen by writing scurrilous letters, published broad-sides, and reviled one another in articles published in the newspapers. Finally a noted professor caned a fellow-practitioner in the public streets. A challenge followed the caning, and a duel was averted only by the prompt arrest of the two parties by an officer of the law.

At this juncture, some of the peaceable, dignified, self-respecting, and thoughtful physicians, tired of the undignified proceedings, resolved to put a stop to the wrangling of these belligerants, feeling that it was detrimental to the good name and influence of the profession at large. A secret medical fraternity was organized, and a plan was formed which soon put a stop to all the trouble. This oath-bound body made the offending physicians feel that the profession was against them, and that they were in the minority and very unpopular. Soon the atmosphere was cleared, and good feeling was restored; and, as the result, the medical profession in Philadelphia since that time probably has been more harmonious than in any large city in the world.

This was the first secret medical fraternity in Philadelphia, and perhaps the first in America. When its object had been attained, it was disbanded.

This small, but respectable body illustrates the value of quiet, earnest, united action, and the great good that can be attained by an efficient body, working intelligently. No one knew of the existence of this organization, outside of the membership. This combined action was absolutely necessary; as the standing of the participants was such that independent action would have, in all probability, only added to the number of the contestants, and increased the bitterness of the belligerant doctors, who would have considered individual action meddlesome. When, however, they found so many determined men expostulating with them and denouncing them, they desisted. We are now enjoying the heritage left by these fraters ; for it is probably the influence of such a state of feeling that has made a success of the medical fraternities and other medical organizations in Philadelphia.

Medical Societies allied to Secret Fraternities In Philadelphia. — For the last forty or fifty years, we have had in Philadelphia, many medical clubs. While not secret, they are social and fraternal. They have been formed for various purposes, but their two main objects have been medical education and sociabilty. We have had the Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and J. Aitkin Meigs Medical Clubs; the West Philadelphia Medical Book Qub and Library; the Medical Gub of Philadelphia, with over eight hundred members. All these organizations meet at stated periods, and have professional intercourse, with dining and social features added. These bodies have brought the doctors of the neighborhood together, making them better acquainted, more ethical, and possessed of more good feeling.

Such clubs are a benefit to the members, as well as to the general public; for questions of public sanitation are often discussed, and any prevailing disease is talked of ; and other medical information is disseminated by means of papers, addresses, etc.
These bodies are quite particular in the selection of their members, which insures food work. They certainly bring about harmony, where ill feeling often previously had prevailed.

Let us inquire into the uses and attraction of secret organizations in the past :

  1. Practical fraternity, or brotherhood.
  2. Mutual protection, as well as assistance at home and abroad.
  3. A new home-circle, even when in foreign lands.
  4. To keep secret their private methods among the few, educating and teaching novices and initiates only.
  5. To have a permanent place for their valuable archives, which were on tablets, papyri, etc.
  6. To have a directing head to govern their actions and to punish the wayward, idle and wicked.

They were the mainsprings of progress in the world. Has any great work at any time ever been accomplished without organization?

These medical fraternities, as now fashioned, are not for political purposes ; they are not organized to extort money from the public, nor to impose upon the patients, or to build up a medical oligarchy ; they are not for the purpose of interfering with the right of anyone to practise, poor or rich, male or female, black or white. In other words, they are not a medical monarchy, to meddle with the rights of others in any way. They are professional schools whereby the general public are benefitted, for when able doctors assemble, they talk of medicine, public sanitation and set their associates to thinking ; when doctors talk about disease and its treatment, those who hear them are stimulated to thought and observation which prevent stagnation in their work. Physicians should be always students; in order to be such it is necessary to associate with their equals or superiors. They are improved by a medical atmosphere, and when out of it they cease to be students.

These societies mean “getting together” of those in the same path of study, and rousing friendly rivalry; encouraging honorable ambition to excel; and extending a helping and guiding hand to the younger neophyte, who perhaps has just left his fireside for the first time.

They are intended to gather together a body of selected men, and to teach studiousness, morality and gentility. They were organized by congenial spirits, for social and fraternal purposes, improving the minds and raising the Standard of excellence in the meniliers ; to promote harmony and maintain respectability, and by precept and example, to instruct the members, graduates and undergraduates, in ethics and humanity. In other words, to elevate the profession by protecting it from its enemies, from without and within its ranks. It affords a place where reforms in the profession which can be planned, free from the presence of the unethical, immoral and unclean, towards which perhaps the shafts are to be directed.

From the foregoing, I feel that we can say that Moses, lemhotep, Solomon, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, and the Asclepiads were fellow-fraters of ours, having belonged to secret medical fraternities. One writer of note, in his work on secret societies, has said that in ancient times secret societies were useful and important, but that now they are useless and on the wane ; but their presence in all ages, in their various forms and combinations, seems to prove their importance to the profession. Let us investigate the statistics in regard to the principal secret organizations in the United States and Canada in 1906, and we shall find that seventeen of the largest secret organizations outside of the labor-societies, which are the largest in this region, have a membership of nearly seven millions, or about one-twelfth of the whole population of the United States. They certainly are not diminishing.

Modern Greek-letter societies are essentially of American College origin. The collegians needed a closer alliance with their fellow-students, and they formed these societies. The old ones still flourish ; new ones are formed. Medical students had their clubs, but no national society, until the courses were prolonged from two years of four months each to three years of seven or eight months each. Almost every large medical school began a fraternity, so that at this time their members are found all over the United States and Canada.

At the end of the nineteenth century, came the Greek medical fraternities of the medical colleges, composed of the medical students. The extension of the courses to four years first made them a need. The influence of the college fraternities did not follow the students into the medical atmosphere. The prolongation of the courses called for friendly fraternal communion among the students, which the two short terms of five months each did not warrant. The students also wished to be associated with the older graduates, and they were added; so that now most of the professors are members of some medical fraternity. The modern irruption of Greek-letter medical fraternities seems appropriate, for Greece was the place where the science of medicine was liberated from superstition and developed into a separate vocation.

Some persons object to secrect societies. This might be answered by saying that each family has its secrets, and so have bank-officers and individuals. They do not tell all their private affairs. In fact, we all have secrets; and some of us require to be sworn to secrecy. To show the good work that may be accomplished by a secret organization, I might cite the history of a religious society called the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, which was organized by Count Zinzindorf, and a half of a dozen of his students, in 1739. It was the foundation of the Moravians, a denomination which has probably accomplished more missionary work for its numbers, than any other body of Christians. Its work spreads over the whole civilized world. Its motto was engraved in a ring. “No one lives to himself.” Can the enemy of fraternalism say that the secret society had the effect of making its members narrow minded and selfish? Nature has its secrets, or mysteries, too, illustrated by the development of the ovum and the seed,’ and the chemistry of the silent laboratory of the cell. Secrecy has its attractions to human beings; and some that are weak are ready to obey the demand of a society that keeps them alive to their duty, the oath of the society acting in the same way as the vow of the church. It brings about unity, and unity demands organization; and organization developes strength.

A good initiation should be a moral show, attractive, and, at the same time, instructive, and elevating; a theatrical performance for those that could not pay for a worthy theatrical show. They become wedded to the parts played : First, because they have to take the parts of the play; secondly, because they have been through the “ordeals,” and like to observe their effects upon others; thirdly, they are familiar with the play, and know when it is well done, — the amateur actor is watched in his development ; fourthly, the evening diversion is attractive after a hard day’s work ; and fifthly, they receive a cordial welcome from their brethren, who would, perhaps, be less cordial if the meeting were outside the chapter, or lodge room, owing to social and business relations. They must meet on a level. They have the beneficent influence of fraternal good-feeling, which is engendered by close, friendly intercourse.

General medical societies do much good, but fraternities go further; and when men have real or supposed wrongs, the best way is to come together, and have an understanding. In this way, prejudice is often banished, and ethical breaches closed and prevented.

A good medical organization has a stimulating effect upon the scientific activities of the mass as well as upon the individual. The public is also benefitted when a body of competent medical men are looking after the health of the community, combatting the spread of disease by examining into the causes and demanding the aid of the public in passing proper laws for the purpose of protecting the health of the people.

Source Citation:

Curtin, Roland G. 1907. A study of ancient and modern secret medical fraternities. n.p. Philadelphia. https://www.loc.gov/item/09031357/

Cite this page:

Curtin, Roland Gideon. 1907. "A study of ancient and modern secret medical fraternities, Pamphlet." History of Higher Education. https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/primary-sources/a-study-of-ancient-and-modern-secret-medical-fraternities-pamphlet/