Skip Navigation Bar
NLM logo

In His Own Words: Brief Biography

Martin Marc Cummings (1920-2011), medical educator, physician, scientific administrator, and medical library director, made significant contributions to medical informatics and librarianship. As Director of the National Library of Medicine from 1964 to 1983, he guided the Library into the age of technology while significantly broadening its mission.

Cummings was born in Camden, New Jersey, on September 7, 1920. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Bucknell University in 1941 and his doctorate in medicine from Duke University in 1944. His medical research interests included the treatment of sarcoidosis and tuberculosis. In 1946 Cummings completed a U.S. Public Health Service internship and residency at the Boston Marine Hospital, after which he became a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service. In this capacity he received extensive training in bacteriology and tuberculosis at the Michigan State Health Department and the Serum Institute of Denmark. Upon completion of his training he served as Director of the Tuberculosis Evaluation Laboratory at the Communicable Disease Center (now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1949 Cummings joined the U.S. Veterans Administration's Department of Medicine and Surgery. He served from 1949 to 1953 as Chief of the Tuberculosis Section and Director of the Tuberculosis Research Laboratory at the V.A.'s Lawson General Hospital in Chamblee, Georgia. In 1953 he became Director of Research Services at the V.A.'s Central Office in Washington, D.C., serving until 1959.

During his time at the V.A. he also taught at several medical universities. Starting in 1948 he began teaching as an Instructor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, rising to the positions of Assistant Professor of Medicine and Associate Professor of Bacteriology by 1953. While at the V.A.'s Central Office he taught at the George Washington School of Medicine, lecturing there in microbiology until 1959. From 1959 to 1961 he was Chairman and Professor of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine.

In 1961 Cummings accepted the position of Chief of the Office of International Research at the National Institutes of Health, serving until 1963. Over the next year he served as Associate Director for Research Grants before becoming the Director of the National Library of Medicine in 1964.

Early in his tenure as director, Cummings was strongly involved with the passage of the Medical Library Assistance Act of October 22, 1965, authorizing the Library to aid the nation's medical libraries in expanding their services to the broader health community. An ongoing hallmark of his leadership was the promotion of technology to improve the Library’s services. He oversaw the improvement of MEDLARS and went on to develop new ventures such as Extramural Programs, the Regional Library Network, Specialized Information Services, and the Toxicology Program. Cummings also embraced a larger international presence for NLM, often speaking abroad and establishing a network of international MEDLARS centers. Significantly, he also focused on gaining authority and funds for a research and development program, which culminated on May 22, 1980, with the dedication of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications. During his tenure at the Library, Cummings's own research interests included John Shaw Billings and William Osler, National Library of Medicine programs and library operations, and biomedical communications, history, and administration.

Under Cummings' directorship the Library was involved in the historic case of Williams & Wilkins Co. v. The United States. On February 27, 1968, Williams & Wilkins Co., a major publisher of medical and scientific books and journals, filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Claims against the United States of America. They charged that the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health Library violated the company's copyright by duplicating for interlibrary loan articles from journals published by Williams & Wilkins. The case was finally settled by the Supreme Court in 1975 in favor of the government; by that time it had become a landmark case concerning library photocopying and copyright.

Cummings retired as Director on September 30, 1983, but immediately assumed new duties as Director Emeritus. His new responsibilities included organizing and classifying the John Shaw Billings Papers and assisting the Library's International Program activities in the wake of Dr. Mary Corning's retirement. In 1984 Cummings acted as a consultant to and member of the Council on Library Resources' Board of Directors. He then returned to teaching as Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine from 1986 to 1990.

Throughout his career Martin Cummings published over 100 articles, editorials, chapters, and speeches covering medical research and librarianship. Early publications from 1946 to 1963 discuss his medical research into sarcoidosis and tuberculosis. His writings from 1963 onwards address issues concerning library administration and technology, and the National Library of Medicine.

Cummings received over thirty awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees. Awards include Rockefeller Public Service Award, Modern Medicine Distinguished Achievement Award, and the Abraham Horowitz Award of the Pan American Health Organization. He was a fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics, the Medical Library Association, and the Royal College of Physicians. In addition, he received honorary degrees from Bucknell University, University of Nebraska, Emory University, Georgetown University, the Karolinska Institute, the Academy of Medicine of Lodz, Poland, and Duke University. He was also an active member of numerous medical and library professional associations throughout his career and retirement, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Medical Library Association, and the Washington Society for the History of Medicine.

Brief Chronology

  • 1920 Born in Camden, New Jersey (September 7)
  • 1941 B.S., Bucknell University
  • 1942-1944 U.S. Army
  • 1944 M.D., Duke University
  • 1944-1947 Internship and Residency, Boston Marine Hospital
  • 1944-1946 Resident, Tuberculosis Grasslands Hospital, Valhalla, NY
  • 1946 Received specialized training in bacteriology and tuberculosis, Michigan State Health Department and the State Serum Institute of Denmark
  • 1946-1949 Commissioned Officer, U.S. Public Health Service
  • 1947-1949 Director, Tuberculosis Evaluation Laboratory, Communicable Disease Center, Atlanta, GA. Treated tuberculosis in veterans, Lawson Veterans Administration Hospital
  • 1948-1953 Instructor through Associate Professor of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine
  • 1949-1953 Chief, Tuberculosis Section and Director Tuberculosis Research Laboratory, Veterans Administration Hospital, Atlanta, GA
  • 1953-1959 Director, Research Services, Veterans Administration, Washington, D.C.; Lecturer of Microbiology, George Washington University School of Medicine
  • 1958-1959 Chairman, Committee on Medical Research, National Tuberculosis Association
  • 1958-1960 Chairman, Panel Sarcoidosis National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences
  • 1959-1961 Professor and Chairman, Department of Microbiology, University of Oklahoma
  • 1961-1963 Chief, Office of International Research, National Institute of Health (NIH)
  • 1963-1964 Associate Director for Research Grants, NIH
  • 1964-1983 Director, National Library of Medicine, NIH
  • 1965 Medical Library Assistance Act
  • 1968 Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States of America
  • 1980 Dedication of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications
  • 1984 Director Emeritus, NIH, National Library of Medicine (NLM)
  • 1984 Consultant and Member, Board of Directors, Council on Library Resources
  • 1986-1990 Distinguished Professor, Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • 2011 Died in Sarasota, Florida (September 1)

Congressional Appropriations Statements and Commentaries and Speeches and Writings

About the Project | Brief Biography | Personal Papers Finding Aid | Credits

Last Reviewed: September 29, 2022