Those who have pursued doctor careers have been around for thousands of years. First referred to as healers and shamans, we now refer to individuals who have trained in medicine, doctors.
The first medical doctor recorded by name was Imhotep, an Egyptian, who lived around 2650 BCE. He is thought to have written one of the first medical texts, now known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus, (so called because of the man, Edwin Smith, who originally purchased it from an Egyptian antiquities dealer) an ancient surgical textbook detailing the evaluation of diseases without the magical and spiritual elements present in earlier texts. Beginning in the 1st century, degrees in medicine were awarded to students. The first medical schools described were truly teaching hospitals and were located in the Middle East. They spread to Egypt and then to Europe.
Purportedly, individuals trained in the medical professions were first given the title of "doctor" at the Medical School of Salerno. After graduating from a set regiment of coursework, practitioners could call themselves "magister" or "doctor."
In the United States, medical practice dates back to the early 1600s. In England, there was a division of medical professionals into three groups: physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. This model did not persist in the North American colonies and medical doctors who had trained in English universities were originally expected to perform all three functions.
In 1765, Drs. John Morgan and William Shippen, Jr. founded the first medical school in colonies: the Medical School of the College of Philadelphia. By1876 there were more than 60 medical schools in the U.S.
The first organization of medical professionals in the 13 colonies was the New Jersey Medical Society, chartered on July 23, 1766. Renamed later to the Medical Society of New Jersey, it is the oldest medical society in the United States. Societies like this were responsible for regulating the medical field by testing and licensing physicians.
As part of this regulation, medical training programs were established. The first of these programs was the medical college of the Medical Society of the County of New York, which was founded in 1807.
By 1846, conventions were being held to discuss an ethics code, standards for the higher education of physicians, and a national medical association. One year later, hundreds of delegates from 40 medical societies and 28 colleges met for first session of the American Medical Association (AMA). Nathaniel Chapman was elected its first president. In the beginning, the AMA set the educational standards for physicians training in the U.S.
At the outset, nearly all graduates of medical school were white males. The first African-American awarded a Medical Doctor (MD) degree was Daniel Hale Williams, who graduated from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1883. The first woman awarded an MD was Elizabeth Blackwell, who graduated from Geneva College of Medicine in upstate New York.
The first true teaching hospital, and some say the first true medical school, opened its doors in 1893: The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Following the start of Johns Hopkins’ program, many medical schools were reorganized to mirror its model. Today, all medical schools in the U.S. are accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the AMA.
There are presently over 100 MD programs in the U.S.
As medical knowledge began to grow, specialization in medicine began to take root. By the time Johns Hopkins had opened its doors, people were already debating the benefits and limitations of general practice versus specialized practice. With our evolving understanding of the human body, viruses, and bacteria, it was only natural for doctors to branch out into different fields of interest. Additionally, it was becoming unreasonable to thoroughly train all students in all facets of medicine to the degree that they could practice all areas effectively.
Out of specialization, residency programs were born. Residencies, which evolved in the late 1800s, became more formal programs in the 1900s. In the beginning, residency was optional for a general practitioner and only a small number of primary care physicians elected to complete a residency program. By the end of the 20th century, more state laws began requiring one or more years of training to gain licensure as a specialist.
Today, to become a physician one must complete at least three years of undergraduate education resulting in a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of residency training before practicing completely independently. The system has evolved over hundreds of years (in this country) to provide the most consistent and informative training to physicians. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be more than 800,000 practicing physicians in the United States.