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An Open Letter to Alumni of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Members of the Nathan Smith Davis Society

The Nathan Smith Davis Society carries the name of one of our founders of the medical school, our first dean, and a pioneer in medical education. Nathan Smith Davis advocated for higher standards in the training of physicians as well as in the medical profession. He founded the American Medical Association (AMA), served as its first president, and was the founder and first editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Davis is known as the “father” of the AMA.

These accomplishments, however, belie an uncomfortable truth and imperfect past as recently revealed by the AMA (read the AMA statement). One should take pause with contemporary tours of past experiences, but the clear lens of time reveals Davis’ complicity in the thwarting of professional development during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Decisions made in 1868, derived from AMA archives The American Medical Association and Race | Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association establish his role and that of others in the exclusion of Black and women physicians from AMA membership; the restriction of trade through the declination of state medical licenses in the absence of AMA endorsement; and, the creation of a separate professional society based on race, the National Medical Association.

A statement from the New York Times in 1870 bemoaned Davis' actions that were indeed prescient of struggles still experienced today: "… [Yet] when a man of certified competence and character knocks at the door of a great national association, claiming to represent legitimate practice, and because of his color a body like ours goes manipulating about for some excuse to keep the man out, it is too trivial and sad to record. … We degrade not him but ourselves by such breaches of the law of ethics which indwells in science.” The AMA has begun to take its own separate actions to address this history.

How do we reconcile this sobering and unwelcome history tainting our own school? While we might attribute these behaviors to prevailing societal norms in post-Civil War Reconstruction or countervail these concerns by the legacy our school represents, neither response seems appropriate, sufficient, or restorative.

The better approach is a pivot that acknowledges our hopes and endorses our convictions. Over the past decade and especially over the last five years, now galvanized by events just over past months, our school has taken thoughtful steps as leaders in the march towards equity in medicine. Our recent Social Justice Statement documents a commitment to improvement and steps already executed to effect that change. See this video from our Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We are not the same medical school founded by Davis and his colleagues. Our ethos is not exclusionary. We steadfastly embrace excellence through diversity.

We are not wont to re-write history nor should we become apologists. We can however learn from history, and in the words of philosopher and writer George Santayana: “progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness … Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We own our past but it does not define our present. Our leadership in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion continues now with even more determination. Our commitment to Social Justice is unyielding. Our conviction to reject bias, discrimination, and racism is inviolate.

We have heard from some of you and thank you for your questions and expressions of concern. Our discussion to consider new names for our long-standing Nathan Smith Davis Society has already begun. In the next few days we will be consulting with leadership of our Medical Alumni Association regarding a process for this change. Other steps may likewise be necessary.

We encourage your thoughts on these important revelations and your feedback on next steps is most welcome. Please send your comments to feinbergdean@northwestern.edu.

Sincerely,

Clyde W. Yancy, MD, MSc
Vice Dean for Diversity & Inclusion

Alan Krensky, MD
Vice Dean for Development

Eric G. Neilson, MD
Vice President for Medical Affairs
Lewis Landsberg Dean