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The Story of NLM Historical Collections

  • Beginnings 1818-1867

    NLM historical collections trace their beginnings to 1818. In that year Dr. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General of the Army, filled a few of his office shelves with books, journals, and pamphlets to serve as a reference collection for the Army surgeons under his command.

    In 1836 the growing collection was officially named the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army.

    After the Civil War, the Surgeon General's Library received an infusion of medical books and journals from the Army's temporary hospitals, which closed at the end of hostilities.

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  • John Shaw Billings 1867-1895

    To take charge of the burgeoning collection, the Army summoned 27-year-old career Army medical officer and book lover Dr. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), who set out to create a comprehensive collection of medical materials.

    The relentless Dr. Billings wrote letters to physicians, editors, health and government officials, librarians, and society officers requesting donations, exchanges, and outright purchases. He accosted State Department officials traveling overseas, entreating them to bring back foreign medical books and journals.

    Billings was so dedicated to his quest to build a world-class library that Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, "Dr. Billings is a bibliophile of such eminence that I regard him as a positive danger to the owner of a library, if he is ever let loose in it."

    Billings' voracious reading in the Library made him one of the most learned men of Gilded Age America. He was a top authority in such fields as public health administration, hospital design, vital statistics, scientific medicine, hygiene and ventilation technology, census organization, epidemiology, and science administration.

    Under his stewardship, the Library's roughly 2,300 medical volumes grew into a collection of some 124,000 bound volumes. By 1895 the Surgeon General's Library was the largest medical library in the Americas and possibly in the world.

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  • Index-Catalogue and Index Medicus

    Billings's expertise in librarianship led beyond collecting books to his system of cataloging the library's collection. He also created two landmark finding guides, which appeared in the late 1870s.

    The monumental Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office is a multi-volume subject index to the collection. Today it remains an invaluable resource for primary source material in NLM's historical collections.

    Index Medicus was the first comprehensive index of journal articles in the Library's collection. NLM ceased publication of Index Medicus with the December 2004 edition (Volume 45). MEDLINE/PubMed lists references from 1966 to the present.

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  • Making a National Library

    Initially, the Surgeon General's Library was intended as a resource for military physicians. Dr. Billings gradually opened the collection to physicians and health professionals everywhere, making it a true national medical library. At the same time, the monthly Index Medicus and the Index-Catalogue made the library internationally famous.

    By 1895 when Dr. Billings retired to head the New York Public Library, he left behind a dynamic collection of books and journals, incunabula and rare manuscripts, and the beginnings of a prints and photographs collection.

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  • The War Years

    The Library's collection continued to grow by purchase and donation under subsequent directors. In 1942, to ensure the safety of the collection during World War II, the Library's rare and valuable books, manuscripts, and prints and photographs were sent to Cleveland, where they were housed in a building owned by the Cleveland Medical Library Association.

    During this period, an official historical section was created to care for the Library's old and rare material. Originally comprised of books published before 1801, the collection was expanded in the 1960s to include material published through 1913, as well as more recent pamphlets and dissertations.

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  • The Move to Bethesda

    In May 1962, accompanied by armed Pinkerton guards, the collection was moved from Cleveland to the Library's current location in Bethesda, Maryland.

    Today, NLM historical collections are housed in the History of Medicine Division (HMD) and are accessible through the History of Medicine Reading Room. As the collections continue to grow, so do HMD's programs and activities, which support the mission of preserving a national treasure and sharing it with the public.

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