Curated by Jordan Jedry and River Freemont, Archives Assistants. Last updated August 2022.
From 1884 to 2020, the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland (MSMP) represented a community of physicians who strove to create “the best environment in which to care for patients.” Remembered fondly by former members for the spirit of collegiality fostered during the Society’s countless meetings and community events, the group strongly advocated for the development and provision of local modern healthcare services. In 1887, members of the Society also played an active role in the founding of the University of Oregon Medical School, demonstrating the Society’s early commitment to the advancement of regional medical care, which would continue over its 136-year history.
Drawing from the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland records, this exhibit traces the local impact of the MSMP over its history through a showcase of the group’s most notable activities, including community health education programs, emergency medical services, disaster planning, and vaccination and disease awareness campaigns.
Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland: History and Introduction
The Portland Medical Society was founded on June 10, 1884 by seventeen physicians from across Portland and Multnomah County, with a mission to “cultivate harmony and kind feeling among members of the profession,” as well as to “promote the advancement of the medical and collateral services.” While the Society functioned primarily as a professional networking group for physicians across Multnomah County, the most important and lasting actions of the Society include their advocacy for equitable access to healthcare services, their involvement in community health education and vaccination/testing initiatives, and the organization of emergency services and disaster preparedness plans for the city of Portland.
Over the course of its history, the Society changed names several times, operating as the Portland Medical Society (1884–1904); the Portland and Multnomah County Medical Society (1904–1934); the Multnomah County Medical Society (1934–1994); and the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland (1995–2020). The Society continued its work until the end of 2020, when it ceased operations amid administrative and financial impacts due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Community Health Education
From its earliest meetings, the Society centered collaborative health education as one of the most important benefits of membership. Each regular meeting included a presentation of contemporary medical research by an active member, who would then lead a post-presentation discussion on the chosen subject.
The notion of community health was the backbone of many early meetings and breakthrough policy discussions internally. These discussions led to initiatives for the benefit of the entire community during the mid-20th century. The Society sponsored a popular weekly radio series called “Ask the Doctor” in February 1960, featuring a panel of three physicians answer telephone questions from the live listening audience each Thursday evening. The program proved to be so successful and engaging that the number of phone calls made during each discussion often could not be handled entirely during each session!
During the 1980s, the Society also created a Tel-Med library of over 200 audio tapes that provided clear, concise, and medically accurate information at an eighth-grade level of understanding. This would prove to be one of the most popular public services programs offered by the Society; listeners could utilize the library by simply calling the Tel-Med number and requesting the tape they’d like to hear.
Vaccine and Diabetes Awareness Campaigns
In the interest of medical advancement and community well-being, the Society organized several vaccination campaigns over the course of its existence, most notably for polio during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, the Tri-County Sabin Oral Poliomyelitis Vaccine Program, which ran from March to May 1962, saw over 1.2 million people receive the life-saving Polio Sabin vaccine; a statistical summary of the program showed that approximately 70% of all county residents under 35 had been immunized. At a cost of $1 per vaccine administrated, an income in excess of $90,000 was assessed and later used to purchase additional dosages of the vaccine.
The Society also helped to develop Multnomah County’s first large-scale, community-wide Diabetes Detection Program in 1962. Recognizing that almost half of diabetes cases present in the community had yet to be detected, the Society hoped that diabetes screening programs would help raise awareness of the disease and prevent serious complications later in life. These campaigns encouraged physicians to use free screening materials during routine examinations of those statistically most likely to have diabetes, especially during National Diabetes Week each November. During the first of such screenings sponsored by the Society in November 1963, nearly 300 cases of diabetes were detected; in the following year, an additional 426 cases were detected.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Committee on Emergency Care led the Society’s efforts to standardize Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training, including offering their own EMT training program. Expanding their advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s, Society members called for the centralization of Emergency Medical Services in Portland – something cities of comparable size had already established.
Multnomah County Commissioners signed an Emergency Medical Services Ordinance in June of 1981, and 9-1-1 services began operation in November of that year. To support a centralized emergency program, a Medical Advisory Board was established to maintain accountability, determine new standards and protocols for prehospital care, and to offer their medical expertise to the program director. One position on the board was reserved for a member of the Society.
The Society established a “non-hospital surge plan” for the region in 2005, in coordination with the Northwest Oregon Health Preparedness Organization. The plan coordinated patient care in places like community clinics and primary care offices in the event of a disaster. The Society sent a postcard to every doctor’s office in six counties, asking them to return the card to indicate their willingness to participate in the planning process. After reviewing research and suggested strategies, the Society mailed out a 27-question survey to doctor’s offices in order to receive input from a real-world, regional context. The Society also led disaster training for doctor’s offices in the region, mailing out information on office disaster response planning, and later, table-top exercise kits so that offices might test their response plan.
In 1927, the Medical Society Telephone Service, Inc. (later, the Doctor’s Official Telephone Exchange) was established out of the belief that “a non-profit, cost-sharing telephone exchange operated for, and by, physicians could give lower priced, more effective service” than the alternative exchange operating in Portland at the time, which charged $10 per month. When the Society’s Exchange began operation, it cost subscribers only $3 per month. Between 1953 and 1963, the volume of calls to the Exchange doubled, but the subscription fee remained one of the lowest in the country.
Prior to the establishment of 9-1-1 services in the Portland area, the Doctor’s Official Telephone Exchange (and later, the Physicians’ Answering Service), provided one of the only opportunities for patients to reach a physician outside of office hours. The calls received at the Exchange ranged from medical emergencies requiring immediate response, to more mundane messages meant to be retrieved at the doctors’ convenience. Around the time that 9-1-1 services were introduced in Portland, the Physicians’ Answering Service served over 1,200 physician subscribers, and subscription fees also included the Society’s Radio Paging Service.
Increasing Equitable Access to Care
In 1982, during a time of economic crisis and high unemployment, the Medical Society established Project Medi-share to temporarily provide care to people who had lost their jobs and their medical insurance. On the one-year anniversary of the Project, 630 physicians, 11 hospitals, and 34 pharmacies had provided medical care to 1,700 patients experiencing unemployment. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners proclaimed July 31 “Project Medi-share Day.”
Metropolitan Medical Foundation of Oregon
Aiming to raise awareness and take action on medical issues in the region, the Medical Society organized the Metropolitan Medical Foundation of Oregon (MMFO) as a “non-profit community outreach affiliate” in 1991. Over the years, MMFO has awarded mini-grants to projects such as a health-screening fair for the uninsured, an evaluation of skateboard safety in Tualatin, smoking cessation kits for high schools, and educational programs targeting childhood immunization. When the Medical Society ceased operations in 2020, the MMFO announced it would continue its work in the community.
Read the exhibit curators' zine, M2FO: Building Awareness, Taking Action, to learn more about the Metropolitan Medical Foundation of Oregon and find additional resources about community health projects in the Portland metropolitan area.