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NLM Mourns Dr. Morris F. Collen, Medical Computing Pioneer

Portrait of Dr. Morris Collen

Dr. Morris Collen on the cover of Modern Medicine, December 1968
Images courtesy of: Bryan Culp, Director, Heritage Resources,
Kaiser Permanente, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.

The National Library of Medicine is saddened at the passing of Dr. Morris F. Collen, known around the world as "Mr. Medical Informatics," on September 27, 2014. He was 100 years old.

"For many of us, Dr. Collen is not only an icon in our field; he is also the grandfather of this rapidly changing and thriving discipline," wrote NLM Director Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg and NLM Board of Regents consultant Dr. Marion Ball in a 2013 tribute on the occasion of Dr. Collen’s 100th birthday, November 12th, 1913, and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the journal, Methods of Information in Medicine.

"Over the course of his life, medical informatics or bioinformatics came into being as a specialty and then progressed to become an integral part of medical research and practice," Lindberg and Ball continued. "Throughout that evolution, Morrie, as we all lovingly call him, has been a pathfinder and indeed the field’s towering pioneer."

In addition to his wide-ranging contributions to medical informatics, Dr. Collen was a valued advisor to NLM. He was a member of the Lister Hill Board of Scientific Counselors from 1984 to 1987. He served on the Literature Selection Technical Review Committee, which advises NLM on the journals to be indexed in MEDLINE/PubMed, from 1997 to 2002, chairing the Committee from 2000 to 2002. He also contributed to NLM Long Range planning.

Morris Collen earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1938.

His residency at the University of Southern California/Los Angeles County General Hospital took him to California, where he started what would become a legendary career at Kaiser (later Kaiser Permanente). He served as chief of medical services at Kaiser’s Oakland hospital from 1942 to 1952, and medical director the following year. From 1953 to 1961, Dr. Collen served as physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente (KP) in San Francisco.

During World War II, Dr. Collen was one of the first doctors to experiment with the use of a new wonder drug–penicillin–for the treatment of pneumonia in shipyard workers, at a time when most of the drug was shipped overseas for members of the armed forces.

Dr. Collen’s interest in the use of computers as a way to improve medical care developed during a 1961 conference on biomedical electronics. Soon afterward, he founded Kaiser Permanente’s research division and created a prototype electronic health record fed by punch card into a huge IBM mainframe computer. The record included information from patient screenings and lab results.

One of Dr. Collen's major achievements at KP was the development of the multiphasic health checkup, which addressed the physician shortage of the 1950s, post-World War II. This series of procedures and tests, given to thousands of KP members, screened for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Not only did these revolutionary tests save physicians' time; they constituted a significant experiment in preventive care. Dr. Collen eventually automated the multiphasic health checkups, moving them onto a punch card system in 1964.

Electronic health records are in the headlines today, but their bloodlines run back to Dr. Collen. Kaiser Permanente’s early EHR system became internationally known because of his groundbreaking efforts. In fact, he predicted that the computer would have "the greatest technological impact on medical science since the invention of the microscope," as noted in a 2008 Kaiser Permanente publication.


Dr. Collen standing in a computer room talking to a delegation of seven men

Dr. Collen, with open binder, explains potential uses of the computer in
medical care to a visiting delegation from Washington, DC in 1966.

In 1979, Dr. Collen ended his tenure with KP’s Medical Methods Research (now the Division of Research) and became Director of the company’s Division of Technology Assessment. Starting in 1983, he served as a consultant with the Division of Research, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of research and teaching in The Permanente Medical Group (TPMG).

He was a founder of the American Medical Informatics Association, the American College of Medical Informatics, and the International Health Evaluation and Promotion Association, and an active member of the International Medical Informatics Association.

As an author and an editor, Dr. Collen published extensively in the areas of internal medicine, preventive medicine, health services research, multiphasic testing, technology assessment and medical informatics. His publications include about 200 articles in the scientific literature and numerous books. As an NLM scholar-in-residence (1987-1993), he wrote a highly regarded history of the medical applications of the computer.

Among his many accolades, Dr. Collen was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science in 1981. He was also honored by the American College of Medical Informatics (ACMI) in 1993 as the inaugural recipient of the highest honor it bestows, the Morris F. Collen, MD Medal for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Medical Informatics. Kaiser Permanente’s Morris F. Collen Research Award recognizes the efforts of the Permanente Medical Group physicians who make significant contributions to scientific literature, the knowledge of their colleagues, and the health and welfare of Kaiser Permanente members and their communities.

Dr. Collen at computer terminal with three staff members including Dr. Sweeney on the right

Dr. Collen at computer terminal. He once recalled, "To acquaint myself with evolving computer applications in medicine,
I visited several people who were already recognized leaders in the field. To begin, I visited James Sweeney
at Tulane Medical School [circa 1962]." Dr. Sweeney is shown standing (right).

Video Resources

The world's largest biomedical library, the National Library of Medicine maintains and makes available a vast print collection and produces electronic information resources on a wide range of topics that are searched billions of times each year by millions of people around the globe. It also supports and conducts research, development and training in biomedical informatics and health information technology.