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Walter L. Bierring and the Early FSMB Leadership

Walter L. BierringModern business writers extol the virtues of leadership. If the early Federation was poor in resources, it was rich in leadership. The talents of many gifted leaders graced the early days of the organization. Indeed, even before the FSMB's founding in 1912, strong leaders emerged from within its predecessor organizations. The National Confederation benefited from the contributions of William Warren Potter, a former Civil War surgeon and editor of the Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal. Later, during the negotiations leading to the formation of the FSMB George Matson (Ohio) and Charles Tuttle (Connecticut) provided careful guidance. Within the American Confederation, Beverly Drake Harrison (Michigan) and William Spurgeon (Indiana) stand out as stalwarts maintaining this organization dedicated to fostering license reciprocity.

With the Federation's founding, several new names come to prominence. Charles Cook (Massachusetts), David Stricker (Colorado), James Duncan (Ohio), Herbert Harlan (Maryland) and W. Scott Nay (Vermont) were among the strong active voices in the early years. Herbert Platter (Ohio) and George Williamson (North Dakota) offered decades of service the Federation. Otto Huffman (New York) served in Federation governance and as editor of its publications for several years before transitioning from regulation to academia. David Strickler (Colorado) provided perhaps the strongest service and a meaningful continuity as FSMB President from 1917 to 1924.

From amongst these many talented physicians, one man stands apart in nurturing and sustaining the organization during the course of its first fifty years - Dr. Walter L. Bierring.

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In many ways, Bierring offers the classic American success story. Born at Davenport, Iowa in 1868 to immigrant parents, he rose from modest circumstances to a national and international presence. Bierring matriculated at the State University of Iowa College of Medicine in 1889. After graduation, he continued his studies abroad before joining the faculty at the University of Iowa, College of Medicine. During the next 20 years (1913-1933), Bierring kept a private practice in Des Moines while his professional interests expanded into public health and medical regulation. He served on the Iowa State Board of Health and Medical Examiners from 1913 until 1921. During this time Bierring became actively involved with the Federation, joining the executive committee in 1913 and two years later assumed the position of Secretary-Editor (Federation Bulletin) - a position he held subsequently for nearly fifty years. His career in medical regulation spanned 40 years - long enough that Bierring came to be recognized as a "medical statesman" later in life.

Bierring's contributions to the Federation were numerous but several stand out. During his lifetime that FSMB never had a permanent office or paid staff. Indeed, much of the work of the organization during the period 1915-1961 took place at Bierring's home in Des Moines. The relationships he cultivated throughout the house of medicine proved invaluable to sustaining the Federation during much of its first half century. His leadership qualities were evident to contemporaries early on. In 1916, Federation President Charles Cook confided to Bierring. "The future of the today largely in your hands. You are the one above all others.who knows its past history, the pitfalls to be avoided, the problems to be solved, the lines of work to be taken up, the danger of its being over-shadowed by other organizations."

Walter L. BierringWith so much that was unavailable to the Federation in its first half-century-staff, revenue, permanent office-leadership became even more critical to sustaining the organization. One colleague described him as a "quiet diplomat" who led with an "iron hand in a velvet glove." His personal style combined grace, charm, and intelligence with a penchant for what the business literature today would describe as consensus building and facilitation. As one contemporary described it, Bierring was "always constructive, never destructive."

Perhaps most critical to Bierring's success was his flexibility and receptiveness to new ideas. Bierring once responded to a question about his longevity by stating, "Some of us just wear better than others. One thing is important though, the ability to adjust yourself to live with your limitations." While it is clear that Bierring had the physical aspects of life in mind, his response holds equally true for his mental outlook.

Bierring's greatest contribution may simply have been that of the steady hand on the tiller over a prolonged period of time. The organization might not have survived at all had it not been for his efforts - especially during the challenging times of the Great Depression. One FSMB said it best: "the most fitting and lasting tribute to Dr. Bierring is the Federation itself. This is his true testimonial. He has laid the foundation and it is up to us to build and carry on."

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