A Vital Operation: GMC Established

Richard Willis charts how order was brought to the medical profession by the foundation of the General Medical Council 150 years ago.

Between 1840 and 1858, a national movement comprising the leading doctors and medics of the age advocated a set of policies designed to protect patients against unlicensed medical practitioners.

The legislation providing for the GMC and its register had been passed a few months earlier in 1858 and came into force that October. The 1858 Medical Act stated that the council’s foremost objective was to enable ‘persons to distinguish qualified from unqualified practitioners’. The following month, Sir James Clark, Sir Charles Hastings, William Lawrence and Thomas Pridgin Teale were appointed the GMC’s first leaders. The first meeting took place within three months of the statute, and from January 1859 no doctor was able to recover fees in a court of law unless he could prove that he had registered under the Act. 

At the time of the Act, the medical profession consisted of three classes of practitioner, all licensed by different professional bodies: the high-ranking physicians, who were members of the Royal College of Physicians, and their fellow members who were usually graduates of Oxford and Cambridge universities; the surgeons, who attached themselves to the Royal College of Surgeons; and members of the Society of Apothecaries.

At a public meeting of London’s general practitioners held on October 28th, 1858 at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Bloomsbury, the view was expressed that the new legislation would serve to put an end to the petty rivalry and jealousies that had long prevailed between the competing professional bodies.

There was also a deep-rooted desire for a radical improvement in the education of doctors and surgeons, a recognition that qualifications needed to be standardised.

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