History of the ACMS

The mission of the Arlington County Medical Society is to bring physicians of Arlington County together to promote the highest standards of the medical profession and to serve its physicians, Arlington County and the neighboring communities. The purpose of the Society is to promote the science and art of medicine, the protection of public health, and the betterment of the medical profession. This Society will protect the doctor-patient relationship; enhance quality patient care; educate the membership regarding legislative issues, and enhance community relations by providing education in scientific, public health and social areas.

The Arlington County Medical Society (ACMS) was founded in 1914 when the half-dozen doctors in the area banded together to form the ACMS to differentiate themselves from the group of physicians that comprised the Alexandria (City) Medical Society. This group of founding physicians included Drs. Walton, Sutton, Quick, Hornthal, Corbett and Welburn. Dr. Howard Walton was the first President. Dr. Quick was Vice President, and Dr. Sutton was the Secretary. The present charter was issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1920 giving the name to the society which it bears today. The earliest office was a home on the property on which Northern Virginia Doctors’ Hospital was built. The office then was forced to move in September 1967 to 3801 N. Fairfax Drive until it moved to its present location on Lee Highway. Dr. Charles Smith is credited with procuring a discounted rent that has not changed to date!

The ACMS has been fortunate to have excellent Executive Directors over the years: Barnes, Murray, Shaw, Montgomery, Benson-Chan, Allen, Castro and our present director, Michelle Saroff.

From the beginning of its official organization and throughout its history, the Medical Society has maintained much of the general characteristics of its early years, namely the conducting of official business at regular meetings with guest speakers to help keep the membership abreast of the latest developments affecting the practice of medicine. During World War I, there was a decrease in society activity and only a few meetings were held. During this trying period, the Society was held together under the presidency of Dr. John H. Gilligan.

In 1920, activity resumed and the society was reorganized. At about that time, Dr. Noland joined the group which numbered about ten men. During these years there were a number of physicians practicing in the area who refused to become members of the society. However, over the years the membership did continue to grow. The physicians in the Arlington area became a more diverse group with more and more specialists entering into practice in the area. In addition there were ever increasing legislative impositions made upon physicians in their practice of medicine. As an example, in 1965, legislation was enacted requiring physicians to be participants in the Social Security program. The Medical Society had to become a greater advocate for physicians and continues to do so today. Many of the twenty-two committees in the early society days are no longer present as times have changed and there is no need for them.

Since physician education was always a high priority, in its early days, the Medical Society sponsored an annual Clinic Day, a daylong education program for the physicians in the area. As we had many medical schools near us in Arlington, and educational programs were readily available, the Clinic Day program was discontinued in 1967. The educational opportunities for Arlington County physicians continue to be readily available for continuing medical education requirements.

The Arlington County Medical Society has always been involved with the community with regard to health issues. In the mid-1950s, the society participated in the polio vaccine program for second grade students in Arlington. In the early 1960s, the society participated in the oral polio vaccine program. The medical society provided in-put to the County Jail on health related issues. The society physicians also were judges at the annual science fairs held by the schools in Arlington, provided coverage for school sports events, spoke in the community about health issues to educate the public, and argued for community support for mental health patients.

It is also of interest to note that many years ago, the medical society provided an answering service for physicians in the area. The medical society discontinued this in 1959. The medical society also founded the Medical Bulletin of Northern Virginia in 1954. It was published by the ACMS with Albert Leitch as the editor. After his death, Dr. William Stone became the editor. The publication ceased in the mid to late 1970s.

The Arlington Free Clinic

One of the greatest contributions by the Medical Society was the establishment of the Arlington Free Clinic. In the early 1990s, it was evident that the process of providing medical care to the indigent of the Arlington community was woefully inadequate. The physicians with the Arlington County Medical Society were being challenged to see these uninsured low-income families. The Medical Society formed a steering committee, the Indigent Care Committee, chaired by Joseph A. Backer, MD. Other communities were recruiting physicians for providing indigent care, helped by state legislation that provided malpractice coverage for pro bono care. Dr. Backer, along with Dr. Archie McPherson, provided the driving force that led to the development of the Free Clinic. Physicians were polled and about 60 responded that they would participate if the Clinic was founded. Dr. Steve Sheehy volunteered to be the Medical Director. A space for the clinic was identified, a Board of directors was formed and Nancy Pallesen was hired as Executive Director. The group moved the concept of care to the reality of a non-profit free clinic with a mission and vision for the future. The clinic saw its first patients on January 11, 1994 using the school nurse’s office at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Numerous members of the medical community, predominantly members of the Arlington County Medical Society, have volunteered both at the clinic and in their private offices, in addition to serving on the board of directors. Free services have been provided by the radiologists, pathologists, and anesthesiologists at Virginia Hospital Center. The Virginia Hospital Center also provides free laboratory and radiology services, and the Medical Society Alliance member volunteers have provided significant assistance. In fact, Mary Ann Nirschl initiated and chaired the 1st Gala fundraising event in October 1997. Since its inception, the Clinic physicians have provided for more than 127,000 patient visits. The Clinic outgrew its early space and is now located at 2921 11th Street South in Arlington.

The mission of the Clinic is to provide free, high quality medical care to low-income, uninsured Arlington County adults. The Clinic has fulfilled this mission for 20+ years and expects to continue as long as it is needed.

The Arlington County Medical Society Foundation

In 1964, the physicians of the Arlington County Medical Society formed the “Foundation.” The Arlington County Medical Society Foundation (ACMSF) was formed to provide access to community medical services to citizens of the community, especially those who could not afford medical services or medical insurance. At that time, another goal was to educate and distribute polio vaccines to the community. Dr. Joseph Romness was the President of the Society at the time.

The ACMSF expanded its influence when the Arlington Free Clinic began to serve the uninsured population of the county. There was a basic need for out-patient diagnostic services for breast and colon cancers through breast imaging and biopsies and colonoscopy.

In 1997, with the leadership of Dr. Edward Koch and the financial support of the McGowan family, the Soza family and the Hitt family two projects were initiated by the Foundation to support breast and colo-rectal health. The highlight of the kick-off presentation in March 2000 was TV host Katie Couric.

Established in 1997, the Sharon McGowan Breast Health Fund, a fund that provides in hospital biopsies and mammography to patients from the AFC and the Arlington Public Health Clinic, continues to function with the guidance of a group of dedicated community volunteers, members of the McGowan and Shapiro families, our Executive Director, and current Foundation president, Dr. Edward Koch. The services to the community include in hospital breast biopsies, screening and diagnostic mammography, and in some cases support for the purchase of medication, insurance and supportive devices. All medical services were provided pro-bono by the physicians of the community, mainly on staff at Virginia Hospital Center.

The ACMS Foundation contributes annually to the Arlington Free Clinic Gala and financially supports other community projects and organizations such as the Arlington Pediatric Center, Doorways for Women and Families, Greenbrier Learning Center, Medical Society of Virginia Foundation, and others. The Sharon McGowan Breast Health Fund maintains an annual fundraiser to raise money for its efforts. The Foundation thanks all financial supporters, community and physician volunteers.

Furthermore, the ACMSF also has a scholarship fundraising program to support local graduating high school students in education pathways of medicine and healthcare. Currently, Wakefield High School, located in a socio-economically diverse neighborhood in Arlington, coordinates a scholarship program with ACMS. These scholarships are a vital support as the number of physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals wane in the context of rising education costs/debt, increased professional/work stress and migration of job choices to other lucrative fields – an environment that has already started contributing to the physician/healthcare professional shortage. Many of our physicians have grown up in the area and continue to reside in our neighborhoods; by giving to the ACMSF Scholarship Fund, it is a way for all of us to give back to the future of medicine – starting right here, where we live and work.

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