Medical Society History

Organized and founded in March, 1883, the Medical Society of Chattanooga and Hamilton County's charter states its purpose to "be concerned with the status of the profession locally (but also) to work with and through the Medical Society of the State of Tennessee,... to advance medical knowledge, elevate the standards of the profession, extend the boundaries of medical science, and promote every effort to relieve pain, improve public health, and protect the lives of fellow citizens,... to elevate and make effective the opinions of the profession in all scientific, public policy and health, material and social affairs; to encourage its members to observe the highest code of professional ethics of the medical profession..."

On March 20, a group of Chattanooga physicians assembled at the office of Dr. Stanhope P. Breckenridge at 5 East Eighth Street. A prominent veteran physician, Dr. Lapsley Y. Green, was elected first president of the group. He began practice in Chattanooga in l855 and served as a surgeon in the Confederate armed forces.

In the 1800s, medical education was not the sophisticated, structured enterprise it is today; in 1860, only a minority of the practicing doctors had actually attained a MD degree. Medicines consisted largely of home remedies concocted with such ingredients as "flour of sulphur" measured on the point of a case knife, and "Seneca Snake Root" mixed with brandy."

At the time of the Medical Society's birth, Chattanooga was implementing its first mass transit system, a horse-drawn line of large open cars each of which could accommodate up to 24 passengers. In the decades after the Civil War, Chattanooga was establishing itself as a center of commerce in the railroad, iron and coal industries. Chattanooga physicians were very active in local politics. Dr. Beriah Frazier served as the city's second mayor. His successor, Dr. Milo Smith, served seven terms as mayor. Born in what was known then as Smith's Crossroads (Dayton, TN), Dr. Smith was known as "the physician who never paid a bill and never collected one."

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Chattanooga community suffered greatly from any number of food-born or infectious diseases. Prominent among these were small pox, malaria, diphtheria, yellow fever and typhoid fever. "The deaths per 1,000 in 1877 was 25.6: 19.9 for whites, 37.0 for blacks. An analysis states that the heavier mortality among the blacks was from "respiratory, constitutional and contagious, and from unascertained causes... In endemic diseases the mortality is greater among the whites." The first woman doctor, Mary T. Davis, was extended membership in the Tennessee Medical Society (now the Tennessee Medical Association) in 1880.

The Medical Society Today

Today, the Society has about 1,000 members. Where Dr. Green and his colleagues served a community of approximately 13,000 persons, the 1,000 physicians of Chattanooga and Hamilton County serve an estimated 465,161 city and county residents.

The times wherein Dr. Milo Smith could survive never issuing a bill have given way to today's environment of managed care organizations, third party payers and electronic billing. The illnesses that vex the population are related more to lifestyle than infectious disease vectors, to genetics rather than germs. Heart disease, stroke, cancers and other largely preventable maladies dominate the vital statistics that describe the epidemiology of today's population.

The mission of medical doctors to alleviate pain and suffering has not changed since the promulgation of the Oath of Hippocrates. The call to a high moral and ethical standard in discharging the duties of a physician has not been rescinded. The vision of what constitutes the practice of medicine, however, has been affected by a myriad of changes. The nature of the problems facing the population, the logarithmic progression in the technical and personal skills of the physicians themselves, the new technologies that physicians may employ in the process of diagnosing and treating illness and disease, and the widening of the scope of those at interest in treatment outcomes to include third parties all have combined to change fundamentally the way medicine is practiced.

Check out the video below produced to celebrate the 130th Anniversary of the Medical Society.