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NLM's Flagship Database Debuted October 27, 1971


Try transporting yourself in time back to 1971. The following milestones may help.

  • Richard Nixon is President -- and the Watergate break-in won't take place until the following summer
  • "All in the Family" debuts on CBS
  • The 26th Amendment lowers the voting age from 21 to 18
  • The National Library of Medicine launches MEDLINE®, or MEDLARS® Online, October 27th

How far we have come since then!

Here are some comparisons between the MEDLINE of 1971 and the MEDLINE of today.

  • In 1971, according to the September-October National Library of Medicine NEWS of that year, MEDLINE featured 239 indexed journals. In 2006, that number has grown to 4,928.
  • In 1971, MEDLINE served 25 users. (As that same issue of the NLM NEWS reported, "By January 1972, it is planned that the network will be extended so that the computer can be reached by a local call in at least twenty major cities.") In 2006, MEDLINE/PubMed will average 77 million unique visits in 2006 and about 800 million searches.
  • In 1971, MEDLINE was available via dial-up telecommunications. "Each user of the service will pay for his own terminal and telephone costs." In 2006, the site is available to anyone on earth via the World Wide Web.
  • In 1971, MEDLINE operated on an IBM 360/50 mainframe computer. In 2006, MEDLINE/PubMed runs on 20 Dell PowerEdge 1850 Servers, 2 CPU 8Gb RAM, with the Linux operating system in 64-bit mode.
  • View photographs of NLM's various computers from the 1960s to the present at (PDF, 5.6MB)

For a more detailed MEDLINE time capsule and links to more information about MEDLINE and PubMed®, go to the NLM Technical Bulletin at: //

View a PDF version (450KB) of the complete article, "NLM to Introduce MEDLINE Service," from the September-October 1971 NLM NEWS at


Medical practitioners and medical researchers both depend on the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before. It was not so long ago that one could assemble this wisdom only by poring over printed bibliographies, usually the Index Medicus, which the National Library of Medicine, under John Shaw Billings, began publishing in 1879. Today, virtually all biomedical scientists, many health practitioners, and an increasing number of consumers search MEDLINE/PubMed® (more about PubMed, below) to learn about published research findings. This is the story of how an NIH "discovery" has evolved over the decades to become a service that is not only indispensable to medical research and practice, but one that is consulted millions of times each year by the general public.

The pioneering MEDLINE project, begun by NLM in the early 1970s, evolved from the computerized system used to produce the Index Medicus, which the NLM had installed in 1964. MEDLINE was the first successful marriage of a large reference database with a national telecommunications network, and it has been called the Model T of online databases: although it would usually get you where you wanted to go, it required a pioneering spirit to master its intricacies and the patience of Job to deal with its idiosyncrasies. Even so, the NLM received more requests than it could handle from medical librarians, who wanted to be trained so that they could conduct literature for health professionals and scientists in hospitals, universities, and laboratories. As noted above, the original system covered 239 journals, and NLM boasted that it was "capable of supporting up to 25 simultaneous users."

The eighties saw the introduction of "Grateful Med," a software program created by NLM that one could load onto a PC or Macintosh and, equipped with a modem and a password, search MEDLINE right from one's home, office or laboratory. Grateful Med was eagerly snapped up not only by librarians but by health professionals, scientists, students, lawyers, medical journalists and others, who saw the average charge of $2 per MEDLINE search as a bargain. Trying to find the same information in the printed Index Medicus would surely cost much more, in time and effort, if it could be done at all. At the height of the Grateful Med era, the number of registered users reached 125,000 and coverage had increased to almost 4,000 journals. Another change by then was that most MEDLINE references were accompanied by an abstract.

The 1990s, of course, was the era of the Internet and the World Wide Web. NLM had one of the earliest Federal Web sites (1993) and introduced MEDLINE searching via the "Internet Grateful Med" in 1996. Dr. Michael DeBakey, then a Regent of the Library, and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, a surgeon, introduced the new system at a press conference. The following year, Vice President Gore introduced free MEDLINE searching via the Web, using a new system called PubMed. Now, for the first time, anyone with access to the Web could search through an immense database of references and abstracts to more millions of journal articles. A decade later, PubMed has evolved into an essential biomedical resource used throughout the world. Read more about PubMed's tenth anniversary below.

In fact, PubMed and Internet Grateful Med had both simplified MEDLINE searching to the point where the public encountered no difficulty at all in retrieving relevant references on any biomedical subject from the literature. Since about 30 percent of all MEDLINE searches are being done by consumers, this presented the NLM with a wonderful opportunity. Why not create a service that not only will provide selective MEDLINE results that are useful to the consumer, but also link the Web user to the authoritative, full-text health information being put out by NIH institutes and by a variety of non-Federal sources" Such a service, called MedlinePlus, at //, was introduced in October 1998.


Another major milestone, ten years ago, was the launch of PubMed. It was first released in January 1996 as an experimental database under the Entrez retrieval system, with full access to MEDLINE.

The word "experimental" was dropped from the Web site in April 1997, and on June 26, 1997, a Capitol Hill press conference officially announced free MEDLINE access via PubMed. PubMed searches were approximately two million for the month of June 1997, while current usage typically exceeds three million searches per day.

For a more detailed look at PubMed's history, please consult the NLM Technical Bulletin at: //

To read more about the Capitol Hill press conference announcing free MEDLINE searching via PubMed, go to: //

To learn about the difference between MEDLINE and PubMed, please consult  //


  • 2006 marks the 170th anniversary of NLM, since its 1836 founding as the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army.

For a detailed chronology of milestones at NLM since its creation as the library of Surgeon General of the Army in 1836, go to: //

  • October 1, 2006 was the 50th anniversary of the passage of the National Library of Medicine Act, which moved the Armed Forces Medical Library to the Public Health Service and rechristened it the National Library of Medicine.
  • 2006 marks the 40th birthday of NLM's Specialized Information Services Division (SIS), at // SIS is responsible for information resources and services in toxicology, environmental health, chemistry, HIV/AIDS and specialized topics in minority health.

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