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CEO DATELINE – AMA removes public display of founder because of racist past

Feb. 18, 2021
By Walt Williams

The American Medical Association has removed a display of its founder, Nathan Davis, from public view at its Chicago headquarters, and it has renamed an award carrying Davis’ name because of his role in excluding women and Black physicians from the organization.

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“These are two small but necessary steps toward reconciling the AMA’s past and laying the groundwork for our future,” CEO James Madara said in a Feb. 17 op-ed on AMA’s website. Madara listed efforts by the association in recent years to address racial divisions in the U.S. health care system. But he added that if AMA was to truly tackle the problem, it has to own up to its role in creating those divisions.

“As we grapple with AMA’s 174-year history, we must acknowledge that decisions by AMA leaders contributed to a health care system plagued by inequities and injustices that harmed patients and systemically excluded many from our physician ranks,” he said.

AMA is only the latest association to grapple with its own history in laying the foundations for today’s societal divisions. In 2019, the American Library Association stripped the name of Melvil Dewey--creator of the Dewey decimal system--from its top honor because of his history of sexual harassment and anti-Semitism. More recently, the American Historical Association and American Psychiatric Association apologized for their past roles in promoting racism.

AMA previously apologized in 2008 for its history of discrimination against Black doctors. In his op-ed, Madara laid part of the blame for that legacy on Davis, who in 1845 drafted the resolution that led to the formation of the association. Davis was worried that the then-infant organization would be torn apart by the political divisions that eventually led to the Civil War, so he excluded women and black physicians from representation in the group’s House of Delegates, according to the CEO.

Davis went even further by blocking an effort by a group of Black and white physicians to join AMA, and he supported policies that prevented regional medical associations from accepting women and Black physicians in their ranks.

“Sadly, this would remain AMA policy for nearly a century, until race- and gender-based discrimination was officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Madara said.

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