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Collections: Prints & Photographs

About the Prints & Photographs Collection

Collection Description

The prints and photographs collection contains images dating from the 15th to the 21st century. The collection includes portraits, photographs, caricatures, genre scenes, posters, and graphic art illustrating the social and historical aspects of medicine. Most types of printmaking are represented: woodcuts, engravings, etchings, mezzotints, aquatints, and lithographs. Also included in the collection are illustrations from the historical book collection.

The collection’s strength lies in its pre-World War II materials. Areas of concentration include portraits of health professionals and biomedical scientists; views of health institutions, such as hospitals and medical schools; fine prints with medically related themes; and images reproduced from the Library’s rare book and manuscript collections. There are smaller numbers of illustrations of anatomy, medical techniques, and diseases, chiefly derived from rare book illustrations, such as Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Subjects include medieval astrology, World War I hospitals, international efforts to overcome drug abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases, among others.

Of particular note is the fine prints collection, numbering more than 3,000 items, including several hundred caricatures on medically related subjects by Honoré Daumier, George Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, and Louis Léopold Boilly.

The poster collection of approximately 12,000 items includes representative examples of historical and contemporary posters dealing with public health issues, such as AIDS, smoking, illicit drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as several hundred posters documenting activities at NIH.

History of the Prints & Photographs Collection

The collection began in 1879 with the acquisition of 6,000 medical portraits collected by Cornelius Wilhelm Hendrik van Kaathoven. The prints were purchased at auction in Amsterdam by John Shaw Billings, the first director of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office, United States Army, which would later become NLM. In 1942, to insure the safety of the collection during World War II, the Prints and Photographs Collection was moved to Cleveland, along with the Library’s rare and valuable books and manuscripts. During the ten-year period following the war, the portrait and print collection grew from 15,000 items to almost 60,000. In May 1962 the collection was moved from Cleveland to the Library’s current location in Bethesda. The Prints and Photographs Collection has continued to grow through the generosity of many donors, transfers from other government agencies, and purchases. If you are interested in making a donation to the Library, please refer to Donating Historical Materials to the National Library of Medicine.

Using the Prints & Photographs Collection

The prints and photographs collection is managed by the Prints and Photographs Program which collects, preserves, and makes available to researchers and the public still images which document the history of medicine, biomedical research, health, and disease.

To discuss the collection in detail or inquire about unprocessed collections contact the Prints & Photographs Program Manager.

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Contact Prints & Photographs Program

Ginny Roth, Prints & Photographs Program Manager


National Library of Medicine
Building 38, Room 1E-21
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, Maryland 20894-3819


(301) 827-4480


(301) 402-0872


Last Reviewed: April 30, 2018