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New Frontiers in Health Communication: Sesquicentennial 1836-1986 home page Introduction page National Library of Medicine: New Frontiers in Health Communication page National Library of Medicine: The World's Link to Health page Medline: Medical Information When Minutes Count page The Toxicology Information Program: Making the World Safer page Research and Development: New Frontiers in Information Science page Medical Education in the Year 2000 page Extramural Programs: Investing in Knowledge page Future: Information Systems Pace Breakthroughs in Medicine page Regional Medical Library Network: Building a Nationwide Base page

National Library of Medicine: New Frontiers in Health Communication

First established in 1836, the National Library of Medicine started as a few shelves of books housed in an office near the White House. Known at its inception as the Library of the Army Surgeon General, it moved in 1866 to Ford's Theatre, site of President Lincoln's assassination.

Exterior view of the front of Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.


Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.
housed the collection from 1866 to 1887.
Courtesy of Ford's Theatre.


One year earlier the library's collection had been placed in the charge of Dr. John Shaw Billings, a Civil War surgeon. Guided by Dr. Billings, the library moved in 1887 into its own headquarters in downtown Washington, where the library's collection and influence grew dramatically, and where the library began to build its international reputation as the most comprehensive collection of medical data in the world.

Interior view: John Shaw Billings is sitting at a table in the middle of Library Hall; Thomas W. Wise sits at a desk resting his elbow on the back of the chair. The three tier stacks are in the background, portraits are hanging off the second tier. A book truck with a duster is on the ground floor. Tables and chairs are in the foreground of the reading room. Windows run along the walls on all three tiers. There appears to be a sky light.

Interior view of the "Library Hall" of the new Army Medical Library (circa 1887-1894). John Shaw Billings is seen seated at the right.

Exterior view of the Army Medical Library staff standing on front steps of Library: Dr. Lamb, pathologist at the Army Medical Museum, General Walter Drew McCaw, Fielding Hudson Garrison, Albert Alleman, Frank John Stockmann, Fetter, David O. Floyd, Frederick W. Stone, Charles G.Toepper, Harry O. Hall, Starkey, Coburn, Sam Brown, Assistant Surgeon Benjamin King, Homer J. Councilor, McGraw, John J. Beardsley, Martin.

The Army Medical Library staff circa 1910.


In 1956, an act of Congress transferred the collection from the Department of Defense to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and renamed the institution the National Library of Medicine. In 1962, the library moved to its current quarters in Bethesda. A second building, the Lister Hill Center, was constructed in 1980.

In a room in a tenement building, a physician is taking the pulse and auscultating an infant held in his mother's arms. A young girl stands by her mother.

A Board of Health doctor in a New York tenement, a wood engraving by W. A. Rogers. This illustration appeared on the cover of volume 33 of Harper's Weekly in 1889. In this interior scene, a doctor listens to the chest of a child who is held by its mother. The older sister watches.