History of Professional Licensure

Learn about the history of professional licensure.  Ever wonder when professions started requiring people to have a license to practice their profession? It began in the middle ages with the trade guilds. Guilds controlled the regulation of “Crafts and Trade”, whereas only members of that particular guild were allowed to practice their profession.

History of Professional Licensure
The History of Professional Licensure

Doctors in England Were the First

Doctors, concerned with the health and well-being of the community were next to develop their own professional license. A group of doctors circa 1600’s sought out the Crown of England to help impose standards and qualifications for those wishing to be licensed. Medicine was the first profession to require licenses like in the modern era, with the expressed intent of regulating the profession for the well-being of the community.

More Requirements for Professional Licensure

After doctors, more and more professions began requiring licensure for those who wished to practice. They included professions such as lawyers, tanners, Indian traders, peddlers, tavern keepers, pilots, purveyors of liquor, barbers, embalmers, ferry operators, horseshoers, boarding house operators, insurance agents, midwives, pawnbrokers, real estate brokers, steamboat operators, undertakers, and veterinarians. If you wanted to practice in any of the aforementioned professions, they all required you to have a license by time of the 19th century (Larkin).

Wyoming, First State to Require Engineer Licensure

In 1907, Wyoming became the first state to require engineers and surveyors to register under the state (McGuirt 2007, 26). By 1950, all states required engineers be registered with their respective state’s board of professional registrations (McGuirt 2007, 28). From the 16th century to the 20th, there has been an explosion in the number of professions requiring licensure. In 2018, 23% of the jobs in the United States required a license (Timmons 2018). There has been an exponential rise in the number of professions being regulated, as more and more jobs are added to the market, these numbers will increase.

Earliest Form of Professional Licensing by a Government (12th-16th century)

The origin of Professional Licensing goes as far back as the Middle Ages. Guilds gained privileges from reigning monarchs or lords to exclusively practice their trades. These privileges were given in the form of proclamations, or “Charters” (Renard XVII). This was the earliest recorded form of licensing and it was used mostly to monopolize and control professions and trade. It was also a source of revenue for local government.  

The Hanseatic League in Europe

In many parts of Europe professions were controlled by guilds; organizations made up of merchants & craftsmen. Being a member meant they were allowed to practice their trade. This caused some organizations to monopolize in their industry. For example, The Hanseatic League was a guild that dominated trade from the 12th century to the 16th century in Europe. They were able to do so because of their access to trade from the East and the privileges they were given by lords and monarchs. The privileges granted to guilds allowed them to corner the market in their trade and be exempt from taxes or tariffs in the case of traders. Richard The Lionheart and later, his brother John, both gave The Hanseatic League these privileges in England. This was due in part to the Hanseatic Leagues’ control of trade during the 12th century. Their monopoly on trade allowed them to force or extort monarchs, like King John, to grant them special privileges allowing them to be the only purveyor of their goods.

Queen Elizabeth Ends the Hanseatic League

It was not until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century that these privileges afforded to the Hanseatic League were revoked, when new routes of trade to the East were established (Melor 1903, 128-130). The privileges granted to guilds through proclamations, letters of patents, and “Charters” were the earliest form of professional licensing. It is possible that there were earlier versions of licensure among the Romans or other earlier civilization, but there is little information shedding light on the matter.

Doctors – The Start of Modern Licensing (16th Century)

In the 16th century another organization was founded that would become the basis for becoming a licensed physician in the Kingdom of England. Unlike the trade guilds, this organization sought not to create a monopoly, but to create a standard of requirements for who could practice medicine. The Royal College of Physicians was established in the 16th century to ensure that only doctors licensed through the college were allowed to practice in the Kingdom of England. “A small group of physicians led by the scholar Thomas Linacre petitioned King Henry VIII to establish a college of physicians on 23 September 1518. An Act of Parliament extended its powers from London to the whole of England in 1523.” (“History of the Royal College of Physicians”). This was the first occupational license intended to ensure only qualified professional were allowed practice, very similar to modern licensing in the 21st century and perhaps was the start of modern licensing.

Professional Licensing in Early America (18th-19th century)

By the 18th century more professions were being regulated than ever before. The colonies of North America required that certain professions be licensed through the colonies. These professions included Indian traders, tanners, printers, Lawyers, doctors, peddlers, tavern keepers, pilots, and for purveyors of liquor (Urdhal 1898 102-103).

Professions licensed in the United States grew even larger by the 19th century. According to Paul Larkin, “in 19th century America, states and localities licensed barbers, embalmers, ferry operators, horseshoers, boarding house operators, insurance agents, midwives, pawnbrokers, physicians, real estate brokers, steamboat operators, taverns, undertakers, veterinarians, and anyone who did business with the Indian tribes” (Larkin).

Licensing of Engineers by State (20th Century)

In the United States, licensing was slow to take effect in all of the states. Some states required licensure while others did not. The licensing of the engineering profession is a perfect example. It was not until 1907 that the first state put forth legislation requiring engineers be registered with the state. This state was Wyoming. Seeing a need for clear guidelines on who could and who could not be an engineer, Clarence Johnston, a state of Wyoming engineer, created legislation that established these guidelines for Wyoming (McGuirt 2007, 25-26). “Louisiana passed an engineering registration law, followed by Florida and Illinois in 1915. Soon after that, Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon passed legislation requiring registration and establishing state boards of examiners for engineering” (McGuirt 2007, 26). In 1947 Montana was the last to regulate engineering. By 1950 all of the US required engineers be licensed (McGuirt 2007, 28). The licensing of engineers in the 20th century is a great example of how licensing slowly spread through the country.   

Conclusion | History of Professional Licensure

In conclusion as more and more professions are added to the labor market, the number of professions requiring licensure will grow. The history of professional licensing from the 12th century to the 21st century teaches us that over the last 900 years, the number professions requiring licensure has grown exponentially. Likely by the 22nd century, even more professions will require a license to practice.

“History of the Royal College of Physicians.” Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Physicians, https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/about-us/who-we-are/history-royal-college-physicians.

Larkin, Paul. “A Brief History of Occupational Licensing.” The Heritage Foundation, 23 Mar. 2017, https://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/report/brief-history-occupational-licensing-0.

McGuirt, Doug. “The Professional Engineering Century.” PE Magazine, 2007, pp. 25–29.

Melor, Edward W. “The Wendish Baltic Ports of the Hanseatic League.” The Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society, vol. 19-20, 1903, pp. 127–150. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=UdGfAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA130&dq=hanseatic league&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjF6v6Y0PnlAhXN1FkKHQmSBy4Q6AEwAnoECAEQAg#v=onepage&q=hanseatic league&f=false.

Renard, Georges. GUILDS IN THE MIDDLE AGES. Translated by Dorothy Terry, LONDON G. BELL AND SONS, LTD. 1918, 1918.

Timmons, Edward. “More and More Jobs Today Require a License. That’s Good for Some Workers, but Not Always for Consumers.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 28 Apr. 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/04/more-and-more-jobs-today-require-a-license-thats-good-for-some-workers-but-not-always-for-consumers.

Urdhal, Thomas K. The Fee System in the United States. Democrat Printing Company, 1898.

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