The Story of the WMA

Background and Preliminary Organisation [1]

During World War II, the British Medical Association (BMA) House had been the focal spot at which doctors of all the allied nations congregated from time to time to discuss problems of medical practice and peacetime and to compare the conditions of medical service and medical education in their respective countries.

In November 1944, an informal meeting of doctors from several countries convened at BMA House in London to initiate plans for an international medical organisation to replace the “Association Professionnelle Internationale des Médecins” [2] (APIM), which was founded in 1925 and later reached a maximum membership of 23 countries and had suspended operations with the advent of World War II [3].

Accordingly, a conference, the International Medical Conference, was then organised in London on 25-27 September 1946, by the APIM and the British Medical Association. This conference was attended by medical representatives of 21 European countries and 10 countries outside Europe [4].

Twenty-nine National Medical Organizations represented at the International Medical Conference became the founder associations:

  1. Australia (Federal Council of British Medical Association Branches)
  2. Austria (Österreichischer Ärztekammertag)
  3. Belgium (Fédération Médicale Belge)
  4. Canada (Canadian Medical Association)
  5. Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovak Medical Association)
  6. Denmark (Den Almindelige Danske Lægeforening)
  7. Egypt (Royal Egyptian Medical Association)
  8. Eire (Medical Association of Eire)
  9. Finland (Finlands Läkarförbund)
  10. France (Confédération des Syndicats Médicaux Français)
  11. Great Britain (British Medical Association)
  12. Greece (Athens Medical Association)
  13. Iceland (Icelandic Medical Association)
  14. Iraq (Iraq Medical Society)
  15. Luxembourg (Syndicat des Médecins du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg)
  16. Netherlands (Nederlandsche Maatschappij Tot Devordering der Geneeskunst)
  17. New Zealand (British Medical Association Branch)
  18. Norway (Den Norske Lægeforening)
  19. Palestine (Palestine Arab Medical Association)
  20. Palestine (Palestine Jewish Medical Association)
  21. Persia (Iran) (Kanoon Pezeshgan Iran)
  22. Poland (Naezelna Izba Lekarska)
  23. Portugal (Ordem dos Médicos)
  24. South Africa (Medical Association of South Africa)
  25. Spain (General Council of Colleges of Spanish Doctors)
  26. Sweden (Sveriges Läkarförbund)
  27. Switzerland (Fédération des Médecins Suisses)
  28. Turkey (Turkish Ministry of Health)
  29. United States (American Medical Association)

It was decided at this conference that the name of the organisation should be “The World Medical Association” and that it should have broader activities and wider membership than the former Association Professionnelle Internationale des Médecins.

The Conference also appointed an Organizing Committee with the following mandates:

  • proceed with the organisation of the Association
  • draft the WMA constitution, including articles and by-laws
  • define the programme of first year’s work
  • define the programme and fix the date of the first annual meeting of the Association
  • produce a journal

The draft constitution was to be submitted to the first annual meeting for consideration and ratification or amendment. It was decided that the Association would not be officially born until the Constitution has been adopted.

The members of the Organizing Committee were:

  • Dr. F. Decourt (France)
  • Dr. Pierre Glorieux (Belgium)
  • Dr. Dag Knutson (Sweden)
  • Dr. O. Leuch (Switzerland)
  • Dr. J. A. Pridham (Great Britain)
  • Dr. T. Clarence Routley (Canada)
  • Prof. I. Shawki Bey (Egypt)
  • Dr. Lorenzo Garcia Tornel (Spain)
  • Dr. A. Zahor (Czechoslovakia)

At the first meeting of the Organising Committee on 27 September 1946, Dr. T. Clarence Routley (Canada) was appointed as Chairman of the Committee, and Dr. F. Decourt (France) as Vice-Chairman. Dr. Paul Cibrie (France) and Dr. Charles Hill (Great Britain) were appointed as provisional joint secretaries, and Dr. Otto Leuch (Switzerland) was appointed as treasurer.

At the second meeting of the Organising Committee held in Paris on 15 November 1946, further progress was made on the Constitution and Bylaws. The organisations of the following countries had already joined the WMA: Belgium, Canada, Great Britain and the United States of America. Dr. Louis H. Bauer, a member from the American Medical Association, was added when this association indicated its intention of accepting membership of the WMA (with Dr. Elmer Henderson as Alternate).

The committee addressed a letter of invitation to 60 national medical associations worldwide to become a member of the WMA and the membership acceptance was continued until the first General Assembly in September 1947.

At the third meeting of the Organising Committee held in London in April 1947, the draft of the Constitution and Bylaws was again discussed and consolidated in view of its consideration at the First Annual Meeting of the General Assembly in September 1947.

List of members at the meeting in London, April 1947:

  • Austria (Österreichischer Ärztekammertag)
  • Belgium (Fédération Médicale Belge)
  • Canada (Canadian Medical Association)
  • Denmark (Den Almindelige Danske Lægeforening)
  • Eire (Medical Association of Eire)
  • France (Confédération des Syndicats Médicaux Français)
  • Great Britain (British Medical Association)
  • Hungary (Orszagos Közégeszsegügyi Tanacs)
  • Netherlands (Nederlandsche Maatschappij Tot Devordering der Geneeskunst)
  • Norway (Dan Norske Lægeforening)
  • Portugal (Ordem dos Médicos)
  • Switzerland (Fédération des Médecins Suisses)
  • United States (American Medical Association)

In view of the formation of the WMA, APIM members agreed to dissolve the APIM in favour of the WMA, and to transfer its documents and its residual funds to the WMA. The dissolution took effect from 15th June 1947.

List of members as of 26 August 1947:

  1. Australia (Federal Council of British Medical Association Branches)
  2. Austria (Österreichischer Ärztekammertag)
  3. Belgium (Fédération Médicale Belge)
  4. Bulgaria (Union des Médecins de Bulgarie)
  5. Canada (Canadian Medical Association)
  6. China (Chinese Medical Association)
  7. Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovak Medical Association)
  8. Denmark (Den Almindelige Danske Lægeforening)
  9. Eire (Medical Association of Eire)
  10. France (Confédération des Syndicats Médicaux Français)
  11. Great Britain (British Medical Association)
  12. Hungary (Orszagos Közégeszsegügyi Tanacs)
  13. Iceland (Icelandic Medical Association)
  14. India (Indian Medical Association)
  15. Netherlands (Nederlandsche Maatschappij Tot Devordering der Geneeskunst)
  16. Norway (Den Norske Lægeforening)
  17. Palestine (Palestine Arab Medical Association)
  18. Palestine (Palestine Jewish Medical Association)
  19. Peru (Academia Nacional de Medicina del Peru)
  20. Philippines (Philippine Medical Association)
  21. Poland (Naczolna Izbu Lokarska)
  22. Portugal (Ordem dos Médicos)
  23. South Africa (Medical Association of South Africa)
  24. Spain (General Council of Colleges of Spanish Doctors)
  25. Sweden (Sveriges Läkarförbund)
  26. Switzerland (Fédération des Médecins Suisses)
  27. Turkey (Turkish Medical Association)
  28. United States (American Medical Association)

The fourth and final meeting of the Organizing Committee was held in Paris, on 16 September 1947, the day before the First Annual Meeting of the General Assembly (17-20 September, 1947). Eighty-five (58 delegates and 27 observers) people from 43 countries or territories attended and the list of attendances is as below:

Note: the list below reads as follows: Country (medical association – Del: number of delegates; Obs: number of observers)

  1. Australia (Federal Council of British Medical Association Branches* – Del:1)
  2. Austria (Österreichischer Ärztekammertag* – Del:1)
  3. Belgium (Fédération Médicale Belge* – Del:2; Obs:4)
  4. Brazil (Sindicato Médico Brazileiro – Del:1)
  5. Bulgaria (Union des Médecins de Bulgarie – Del:1)
  6. Canada (Canadian Medical Association* – Del:3; Obs:1)
  7. Chile (Asociación Médica de Chile – Del:1; Obs:1)
  8. China (Chinese Medical Association – Del:1)
  9. Colombia (Asociación Nacional de Medicina – Del:2)
  10. Costa Rica (Asociación Médica de Costa Rica – Del:1)
  11. Cuba (Féderación Médica de Cuba – Del:1)
  12. Czechoslovakia (Ustredni Jednota Ceskych Lekaru* – Del:2)
  13. Denmark (Den Almindelige Danske Lægeforening* – Del:2; Obs:2)
  14. Ecuador (Círculo Médico Nacional Guayaquil – Del:1)
  15. Egypt (Royal Egyptian Medical Society* – Del:1)
  16. Eire (Medical Association of Eire* – Del:1)
  17. France (Confédération des Syndicats Médicaux Français* – Del:2; Obs:3)
  18. Great Britain (British Medical Association* – Del:2; Obs:4)
  19. Greece (Association Médicale Panhellénique* – Obs:2)
  20. Guatemala (Asociación Médica de Guatemala – Del:1)
  21. Honduras (Asociación Médica Hondureña – Del:1)
  22. Iceland (Læknafelag Islands*- Del:2)
  23. India (Indian Medical Association – Del:2; Obs:1)
  24. Italy (Federazione Nazionale degli Ordini dei Medici Italiani** – Del:1)
  25. Luxembourg (Syndicat des Médecins du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg* – Del:1)
  26. México (Academia Nacional de Medicina de Mexico – Del:1)
  27. Netherlands (Nederlandsche Maatschappij Tot Devordering der Geneeskunst* – Del:2)
  28. Nicaragua (Academia de Medicina de Nicaragua – Del:1)
  29. Norway (Den Norske Lægeforening* – Del:2)
  30. Palestine (Palestine Arab Medical Association* – Del:1; Obs:1)
  31. Palestine (Palestine Jewish Medical Association* – Del:2; Obs:2)
  32. Panama (Asociación Médica Nacional – Del:1)
  33. Peru (Asociación Médica Peruana – Del:1, Academia Nacional de Medicina del Peru – Del:1)
  34. Poland (Naezelna Izba Lekarska* – Del:1)
  35. Portugal (Ordem dos Médicos* – Del:1)
  36. South Africa (Medical Association of South Africa* – Del:2)
  37. Spain (General Council of Colleges of Spanish Doctors* – Del:1)
  38. Sweden (Sveriges Läkarförbund* – Del:2)
  39. Switzerland (Fédération des Médecins Suisses* – Del:1)
  40. Turkey (Turkish Medical Chamber* – Del:1; Obs:1)
  41. Uruguay (Federación de Sociedades Médicas Científicas del Uruguay – Del:1)
  42. United States (American Medical Association* – Del:2; Obs:3)
  43. Venezuela (Federación Médica de Venezuela – Obs:2)

* Founder association who became a member of WMA. Except Finland, Iraq, New Zealand and Persia (Iran), all founder organisations attended.
Apologies for absence from 15 people, 1 from Australia, 1 from Austria, 2 from China, 1 from Eire, 7 from Hungary (Syndicat Libre des Médecins Hongrois), 1 from India and 1 from New Zealand (BMA Branch in New Zealand).
** The Federazione Nazionale degli Ordini dei Medici Italiani was admitted during the 1st General Assembly.

Observers from six international organisations attended as below:

  • World Health Organisation (WHO) in foundation
  • Food and Agriculture Organisation
  • International Association of Medical Women
  • International Labour Office
  • International Union of Students

The report of the Organising Committee 1946-7 confirmed that the WMA reached out to other international bodies, like the WHO and UNESCO. It read that the WHO expressed its interest in the foundation of the WMA and hoped that “a cooperative and friendly relationship may develop between the WMA and the WHO”. The Chairman of the Committee was a delegate to the Interim Commission of the WHO and had every confidence that cordial relations would exist in the future between the two bodies. For the Natural Sciences Division of UNESCO, the Committee believed that the contact will be useful to the WMA in its general activities, although the Division was concerned only with scientific organisations and the Division has expressed its willingness to assist the WMA in connection with financial transfers.

On the second Assembly day, i.e. 18 September 1947 at 3:40 pm in the City of Paris, the proposed Constitution and Bylaws was adopted with minor amendments.

Therefore the World Medical Association was thus officially born on 18 September 1947. Prof. Dr Eugène Marquis, France, was elected as the first President of WMA for 1947-1948. And Dr Jar. Stüchlik (Czechoslovakia) was elected as President-Elect for 1947-48. The invitation of Czechoslovakia for the second annual meeting of the General Assembly in 1948, to be held in Prague was accepted. Dr Otto Leuch, Switzerland, was elected as Treasurer for the period 1947-1950, and Dr Charles Hill, UK, was elected as Acting Honorary Secretary. The first Council, composed of 10 members, was elected, and the World Medical Association was fully launched.

The Constitution, as adopted, provided, among other things, for membership of national medical associations fully representative of the medical profession in their countries or territories, but only one member association from each country. The General Assembly was vested with the general control of the policies and the affairs of the association and was to meet annually in a different country. The executive body, the Council, was directed to administer the affairs of the association and report annually to the Assembly. The Council, at that time, consisted of three elected officers and ten members elected by the Assembly.

English, French and Spanish were declared the official languages of the association, and a bulletin or journal was to be published and known as the official organ of the WMA.

In order to facilitate financial support from its member associations during a period when monetary exchange was restricted by many national governments, Switzerland and the USA were considered the most advantageous locations for the Secretariat of the Headquarters of the new association. In 1948, the executive board, known as the Council, established the Secretariat of the WMA in New York City to provide a close liaison with the United Nations and its various agencies. Dr Louis H. Bauer was appointed as Secretary General. The WMA Secretariat remained in New York City until 1974 when for financial reasons and in order to operate within the vicinity of Geneva-based international organisations (WHO, ILO, ICN, ISSA, etc.) it was transferred to its present location in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

In July 1964, the WMA was incorporated as a non-profit educational and scientific organisation under the laws of the State of New York, USA. This Incorporation established the legal and financial status of the WMA in the USA, with elected members of Council to serve as the Association’s Board of Directors. It also made possible to obtain a tax-free status recognition on funds donated to the WMA and for donors of financial contributions. WMA’s Incorporation was adopted at the XIXth World Medical Assembly held in London, UK, 1965.

The annual meeting of delegates was changed in 1962 to “World Medical Assembly” following revision of the Constitution and Bylaws at the XVIth General Assembly.

WMA Headquarters from foundation to 1974: NEW YORK CITY, USA

From 1975 to present: FERNEY-VOLTAIRE, FRANCE

The WMA as the Platform for Developing a Global Consensus on Medical Ethics

During the post World War II period and immediately after its foundation, the WMA showed concern over the state of medical ethics in general and all around the world. The WMA took on the responsibility for establishing ethical guidelines for the world physicians. It noted that in those years the custom of medical schools to administer an oath to its doctors upon graduation or receiving a license to practice medicine had fallen into disuse or become a mere formality. The WMA was of the opinion that the establishment of a suitable oath or pledge to be administered as a part of the graduation or licensing ceremony would help to impress on newly qualified doctors the fundamental ethics of medicine and would assist in raising the standard of professional conduct.

These facts moved the WMA to appoint a study committee to prepare a “Charter of Medicine” which could be adopted as an oath or promise that every doctor in the world would make upon receiving his medical degree or diploma. To this effect, member associations were requested to submit the text of the oath or promise made by the doctors of their countries at the time the medical degree or diploma was issued. It took two years of intensive study of the oaths and promises submitted by member associations to draft a modernized wording of the ancient oath of Hippocrates which was sent for consideration to the II General Assembly in Geneva in 1948. The medical vow was adopted and the Assembly agreed to name it the “Declaration of Geneva.” Member associations were invited to recommend the use of this vow to the medical schools and faculties of their countries.

A report on “War Crimes and Medicine” received at the II General Assembly prompted the Council to appoint another Study Committee to prepare an International Code of Medical Ethics. The draft was submitted to the midyear Council Session of 1949. The Council believed the draft Code would be incomplete unless the text of the “Declaration of Geneva” were added to it. This was done and the amended draft was transmitted to the delegates at the III General Assembly who discussed it item by item in detail. With minor amendments by the General Assembly the International Code of Medical Ethics was adopted.

With the adoption of these two documents, the WMA was on its way to taking on other ethical problems facing the medical profession. From 1949 to 1952, violations of medical ethics, and crimes committed by doctors in time of war were denounced to the WMA. The need to implement safeguards in human experimentation was brought to the attention of the WMA. At the same time, news was reaching WMA about the various activities incompetent organisations were promoting in the field of medical ethics and medical law. This information caused the Council to establish a permanent Committee on Medical Ethics (1952).

Since its establishment as a standing committee in 1952, the Committee on Medical Ethics has done a tremendous job in receiving, considering, discussing, accepting or refusing dozens of ethical matters brought to its attention. Some of them have been adopted as declarations or statements of the WMA, and most of these have been kept them in line with the rapid developments of medical science. Some are being worked on at this moment, and no doubt others will follow in due course after mature reflection, whenever novel circumstances dictate.

These documents have all received world-wide distribution and application. By solid accomplishments in the field of medical ethics, the WMA has earned the right to call itself the international voice of organized medicine. But medical ethics is not a simple matter of making declarations or drafting codes. The WMA must remain alert to violations of the codes and prepared for swift action to counteract such violations. Thus, WMA has and continues to extend its help and influence on behalf of physicians who are being hindered in applying ethical practices.

[1] This section has been revised in March 2024.

[2] Foreign doctors: a meeting at B.M.A. House. British Medical Journal, Dec. 2, 1944, p. 732

[3] Association Professionnelle Internationale des Médecins. Supplement to the British Medical Journal, 4 September 1937; https://www.jstor.org/stable/25367152

[4] World Medical Association. British Medical Journal, Oct. 5, 1946, vol. ii, pp. 496-503 and 506.