The Convocation of the American College of Physicians is an annual ceremony whereby the College recognizes and applauds its new Fellows and the recipients of various honors. It is a ceremony of tradition, transition, renewal, and celebration. The first American College of Physicians Convocation was held in 1916, the year after the College’s founding. Early Convocations were devoted largely to the induction of new Fellows. In 1929, the John Phillips Memorial Award was established, and all subsequent Convocations have included recognition of awards. From a single award in 1929, the roster of awards has grown to 20. In 1924, the first Master was elected; henceforth, Convocation has recognized new Masters as well as new Fellows and awardees. The first Honorary Fellowship was bestowed in 1950, and since that time these honorees have been included in Convocation.
Convocation is conducted in full academic regalia, a ceremonial form of dress that dates back to the twelfth century. Originally, medieval students and faculty wore their everyday long robes to classes; even as styles changed the robes persisted as “working uniforms” for academics, clerics, and judges. Oxford University soon took on the role of scholarly “dress-code police” and in the fifteenth century assigned certain fabrics and colors to each academic discipline. The hood especially came to hold particular significance.
In the United States, academic garb was rather a haphazard affair until the turn of the twentieth century when the Intercollegiate Commission was founded. The Commission established an academic costume code based upon British tradition, which is in use to this day.
According to the current etiquette, only holders of a doctoral degree—MD, PhDs, JDs, and so forth—may have velvet on their gowns, and only doctors may wear a gold tassel on the cap. Moreover, the doctor’s hood is longer than that of any other degree. Hoods for all degrees are lined with silk in the official colors of the institution conferring the degree. The velvet border on the outside of the hood is also significant; its color indicates the discipline to which the degree pertains. For example, royal purple, traditionally associated with a king’s justice, signifies law. The deep green color on medical doctors’ hoods comes from the green of herbs, healers in humanity’s earliest pharmacopoeia.
Other aspects of Convocation have long and colorful traditions as well. The heavy, ornamental mace carried by the Marshal was made for the College in London and contains many design elements symbolic of medicine. The mace was originally a symbol of power dating back to ancient Egypt and used as a weapon up through the Crusades. Later, the mace became a symbol of authority in government and, in the case of universities and learned societies, of leadership, scholarship, and dignity. The caduceus carried by the College’s president is descended from the symbolic staff carried by a herald in ancient Greece, which now symbolizes the physician’s calling. It is a slender silver rod or scepter, an exact replica of the caduceus carried by the president of the Royal College of Physicians in London since its founding in the sixteenth century.
In its annual Convocation, the College recognizes and embodies these traditions of medicine and scholarship. This ceremony marks the transition and transformation experienced by new Fellows, Honorary Fellows, Masters, and awardees. Additionally, it thereby marks a renewal of the College’s mission to promote excellence in medicine. Most of all, Convocation is a time for the entire membership body to celebrate and commemorate the accomplishments of our many honorees and their contributions to the art and science of medicine.
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