Image of a medical class at Columbia University
Medical Class at Columbia University, c. 1910

The Regents first became involved in regulating the professions in 1872, when a statute authorized them to appoint examining and licensing boards in the state's medical schools. Regents qualifying certificates for persons wishing to study for a profession were issued for students of law (1882), medicine (1889), dentistry (1894), pharmacy (1904), etc.

These certificates set much-needed standards for entry into professional schools, until the schools began to require entering students to hold the bachelor's degree. Justified public concern about the propriety of medical faculties licensing their own students caused the Legislature to vest in the Regents the exclusive power to license physicians (1890). Boards of medical examiners were established to prepare and administer examinations. The Regents acquired jurisdiction over three other professions which previously had independent examining and licensing boards: dentistry (1895), pharmacy (1910), and podiatry (1912). Registered nursing was established as a profession under the Regents in 1903. Raising standards for the health professions took decades to achieve. Starting in 1906 the Regents registered medical schools nationwide, providing crucial support to the American Medical Association's campaign to improve medical education. Registration of physicians was mandated in 1926, forcing many unqualified 'doctors' out of business. Regents standards for dental education became the national model. In 1940 New York became the first state to require working nurses to be registered nurses or licensed practical nurses.

Under the leadership of Assistant Commissioner Augustus S. Downing, seven other professions came under the authority of the Regents between 1908 and 1926. Though details varied, each profession typically had its own statutory authority, state board, examinations, licenses, registers, and (in some cases) formal disciplinary process. The professional boards advised the Regents on professional issues and investigated charges of misconduct During the mid-1920s the functions Of administering professional examinations and maintaining registers of licensed professionals were consolidated under the assistant commissioner for higher education. A separate assistant commissioner for the professions was appointed in 1941. Since World War II the number of professions regulated by the Regents has increased to the present thirty-eight, overseen by twenty-five state boards.

During the 1930s the effectiveness of the process for monitoring and disciplining physicians was questioned, because of the rise of an extensive "abortion racket" in Brooklyn. In 1939 the Regents established a new post of Executive Secretary of Professional Conduct to cooperate with an attorney general's investigation of abortionists. Two years later the medical and dental boards were formally relieved of their responsibility to investigate professional misconduct In 1942 a separate division took over all investigations. The state boards continued to have grievance committees (now called professional conduct committees) which conducted initial hearings after charges were filed. The growing number of disciplinary cases prompted the Regents in 1945 to establish the present multi-step process: first, three-member review committees hold second-stage hearings; cases then proceed to the Regents committee on discipline, and finally to the full board.

Since the 1960s the various professional boards have increasingly employed national standardized professional examinations. The myriad statutory provisions relating to the professions and professional discipline were revised and simplified in 1971. New Regents uniform rules on unprofessional conduct, issued in 197778, were accompanied by improved processing of complaints and a successful publicity program. The Department's disciplinary powers were strengthened in 1981; its own attorneys now became responsible for preparing and prosecuting charges. The Legislature transferred the disciplinary function of the state board of medicine to the Department of Health in 1975, as part of an omnibus act to deal with a medical malpractice insurance crisis (no connection between rising insurance claims and professional malpractice was shown).

The Regents authority to make final decisions in medical discipline cases was given to DOH in 1991. The Office of the Professions, acting for the Regents, examines (or otherwise reviews qualifications), licenses, and registers nearly 600,000 members of the thirty-eight legal)-recognized professions (except for law)-a sixfold increase in licensed professionals in half a century. The Office also investigates and prosecutes alleged instances of professional misconduct, maintaining an office and hearing rooms in New York City. A huge volume of records results. Use of punch cards for processing professional registration records began in 1941; automated filing equipment was acquired in 1967. Computerization of professional licensing and registration functions began in 1975.

Last Updated: December 11, 2008