Dent v. West Virginia

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Dent v. West Virginia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Decided January 14, 1889
Full case name Dent v. State of West Virginia
Citations 129 U.S. 114 (more)
9 S. Ct. 231; 32 L. Ed. 623; 1889 U.S. LEXIS 1669
The state can set reasonable requirements to obtain a medical license.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
Joseph P. Bradley · John M. Harlan
T. Stanley Matthews · Horace Gray
Samuel Blatchford · Lucius Q.C. Lamar II
Case opinions
Majority Field, joined by unanimous

Dent v. West Virginia, 129 U.S. 114 (1889), was an important United States Supreme Court case involving the reputable practice of physicians and state laws in the late 19th century. It was a direct challenge to West Virginia having passed "the nation's first genuinely restrictive physician licensing law in the early 1880s."[1]

The Case[edit]

Frank Dent was a physician of the Eclectic sect, a group which accepted and taught the conventional medical science of the time. However, in the area of therapeutics, the Eclectics carried on a rigorous campaign against excesses of drugging and bleeding, which were still practices used by many physicians at the time. In addition, all but one of their medical schools were open to women.

Dent had been in practice for six years when he was convicted under an 1882 West Virginia law which required physicians to hold a degree from a reputable medical college, pass an examination, or prove practice in West Virginia for the previous ten years. In this case, the State Board of Health refused to accept Dent's degree from the American Medical Eclectic College of Cincinnati.

The Decision[edit]

Justice Stephen J. Field delivered the Court's unanimous opinion which upheld the West Virginia statute. Field noted that each citizen had a right to follow any lawful calling, subject to natural restraints such as age, sex, etc., as well as state restrictions, as long as those state restrictions were reasonable. In addition, the Court ruled that medicine, because of the careful nature of its training, the large knowledge of the human body required of doctors, and nature of life-and-death circumstances with which doctors dealt, reliance needed to be placed on the assurance of a license. Certain circumstances might prompt states to exclude people without licenses from practicing medicine.


Later, the Court would extend its decision in the case Hawker v. New York, 170 U.S. 189 (1898) when it ruled that character was also an important qualification for doctors wishing to obtain a license.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mohr, James (2014-09-22). "Licenses on Their Own Terms: The Supreme Court and the Constitutional Origins of the Medical Profession in the United States" (Lecture Flyer). Columbus, Ohio. 

External links[edit]