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Martin M. Cummings, Former NLM Director and Friend of American Health Sciences Libraries, Dies at Age 90


Dr. Martin Cummings, a scientist, medical educator, scientific administrator and former director of the National Library of Medicine, died on September 1. He was 90.

During his two decades of leadership of NLM, from 1964 to 1983, the Library's mission was broadened as a health information resource. It emerged as a leader in the computer age and it became a major biomedical communications center, transforming a national resource into a unique international force and one of the most advanced scientific libraries in the world. Also, during this fertile period, NLM was established as a new, civilian entity on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

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 US 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 in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1949 Cummings joined the US 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 VA's Lawson General in Chamblee, Georgia. In 1953 he became director of research services at the VA's Central Office in Washington, DC, serving until 1959.

During his time at the VA, he also taught at several medical schools. In 1948, he took as post as instructor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, rising to the positions of assistant professor of medicine and associate professor of bacteriology by 1953. While at the VA's Central Office, he taught at the George Washington School of Medicine, lecturing in microbiology there 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 NIH, serving until 1963. Over the next year, he served as associate director for research grants there, before becoming the director of the National Library of Medicine in 1964.

One of Dr. Cummings' first NLM successes was the Medical Library Assistance Act (MLAA) of 1965, legislation of vital concern to health sciences librarians. When the idea of a grant program for medical libraries was proposed, one senior health official predicted that four years was a realistic estimate of the time needed for passage through the Congress. Dr. Cummings enlisted the support of Senator Lister Hill of Alabama and other influential leaders and, in little more than a year, the Act became a reality. Its influence on the medical library profession has been profound: it was the basis for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM), a "nervous system" of some 5,800 libraries in all US states and territories, and the District of Columbia. Through the MLAA, thousands of institutions and individuals have received grant support for library resources, training, research and publications.

An able administrator, Dr. Cummings could also summon courage and tenacity in fighting for what he believed to be the best interest of the health professions and the nation's health. As William D. Mayer wrote in the January 1984 Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, "He knew how to marshal support within the health professions and was an articulate and forceful defender-in print or on the podium-of medical libraries and their essential services." The historic seven-year battle in the courts to defend the concept of "fair use" photocopying for scholarly purposes is a prime example. As Mayer recounts, "It took a ruling from the Supreme Court to win the day, but Cummings never wavered."

NLM added its groundbreaking Toxicology Information Program during Dr. Cummings' tenure. Another major achievement was the planning and construction of the Lister Hill Center building, to house the research and development arm of the Library.

After his retirement as Director, Dr. Cummings continued to be a firm friend and enthusiastic supporter of the National Library of Medicine and its programs, never refusing any request from NLM's current director for advice or assistance. For example, Dr. Cummings carefully reviewed and provided invaluable suggestions for improvements to the initial versions of NLM's Web information services for the general public and assisted with outreach to seniors and the low vision community.

"Marty Cummings was a very effective leader of NLM, as well as advocate for its programs," noted NLM Director Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD. "After his retirement, he became a good friend to my wife, Mary, and me. In his community in Florida, he became a conduit for all the information services NLM had to offer the residents. Through his group on low vision, we, too, learned how better to serve this public. Essentially, he never gave up. I'm proud to have known Marty Cummings."

Dr. Cummings was unquestionably a visionary. Through his leadership, the National Library of Medicine became an indispensible resource for the world's biomedical information making that information readily available to researchers, educators and health professionals throughout the world.

Scheduled to open in early November 2011, a new NLM Web exhibition, "Martin Cummings, MD, and the National Library of Medicine: Documents Online," will provide access to digital documents of the director of the National Library of Medicine from 1964 to 1983. The site is based upon the work of independent scholar Cheryl Dee, PhD, of Florida State University and San Jose State University.  This digital collection will feature selected speeches and congressional testimony of Dr. Cummings, conveying his vision for the Library at a crucial time in its development.


Martin M. Cummings 

 Dr. Martin M. Cummings, 1968

Courtesy National Library of Medicine