A screenshot of the interactive map reature of the Directory.

Where to Find History of Medicine Collections

By Crystal Smith

Among the National Library of Medicine’s most versatile online historical resources is an interactive tool for locating history of medicine collections worldwide: the Directory of History of Medicine Collections.  Whether you’re a researcher, information specialist, collection manager, or medical history enthusiast, you will find the Directory to be a handy resource.  The Directory connects scholars with literature, artifacts, and unique collections in medical history and allows travelers and explorers to discover medical libraries, archives, and museums nearby and around the world.

A screenshot of the interactive map feature of the Directory.
The Directory of History of Medicine Collections: your guide to more than 200 unique collections around the world.

It all started in the late 1980’s when Dr. Philip Teigen, Deputy Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division envisioned  a resource that would identify history of medicine collections internationally and bring them together in one publicly accessible register. This, he felt, would serve the history of medicine community by raising awareness of collections and increasing access to information by scholars.  To implement his vision, in 1990, Reference Librarian Elizabeth Tunis, developed information sheets for 32 initial entries and the first edition of the Directory of History of Medicine Collections was born. Each year thereafter, the number of collections continued to grow. At first, the Directory was available only as an annual paper publication, available at NLM and circulated to participating collections and interested scholars. But in 2001, Systems Librarian Young Rhee adapted the printed Directory to the web bringing direct access to this resource to the world. Shortly thereafter I took over the project and published the 2004 edition with 119 collections; today it contains more than 200 and growing.

The Directory underwent a major transformation in 2010 with the development of a fully keyword searchable database, accomplished by Systems Librarians Laurie DuQuette and Cindy Rankin, and today we continue to grow and improve this important resource. Recently, we added an interactive map which links users to collections geographically. Now you can locate collections on the map by selecting the continent from the pull down menu.  You can also drag the map to see what collections are represented internationally.

A stained glass window.
A memorial to Margaret Blumenfeld in the Guedel Center

The types of collections listed in the Directory range from single subject specialties to those with a general history of medicine coverage.  The Arthur E. Guedel Memorial Anesthesia Center  is an example of a single subject specialty focus.  The Guedel Memorial Anesthesia Center was founded in 1963 by a small group of anesthesiologists who were interested in preserving the history of their specialty. The center is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Arthur E. Guedel, a pioneer of modern anesthesiology from the West Coast and is housed in the Health Sciences Library at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, California. [Editor’s Note: The Arthur E. Guedel Anesthesia Collection has been transferred to the UCSF Archives since the publication of this post.]

Black and white historical photograph of men in suits and aprons at work in a laboratory.
“Anatomy Laboratory at Boylston Street”
Courtesy Center for the History of Medicine

An example of a collection listing with a more comprehensive coverage of medical history is the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University.  The Countway Library contains the combined collections of the Harvard Medical Library (dating from 1816) and the Boston Medical Library (founded in 1875) and is the largest academic medical library in the world. The Center for the History of Medicine, (ChoM) is one of the world’s leading centers for the study of the history of health and medicine. Its rich collections of rare books, journals, archives, manuscripts, photographs, prints, art, and artifact collections are open to scholars and all other qualified researchers. In addition, ChoM presents a wide range of public programs to a diverse audience of health professionals, students and academic researchers, and the general public.

The Directory database also includes international collections. One unique example is The Old Operating Theater Museum.  This public museum is one of the most unusual museums in London. The Operating Theatre is the oldest in Europe. It is located in the Herb Garret of St Thomas Church, and was part of old St Thomas Hospital built in 1822. The museum presents displays on the history of medicine and herb use and contains more than 1,000 nineteenth century surgical and pharmaceutical objects. In addition to serving as a research center for medical history artifacts, the museum hosts a variety of programs for folks of all ages. If you can’t get to London you can take a virtual tour of the Museum online and check out some fascinating FAQs.

A panoramic view of the inside of the museum.
The Old Operating Theater
Courtesy The Old Operating Theater Museum, Photo by Pan 3Sixty

The Directory is easy to use, with keyword searching, browsing by location, and an interactive map of collection locations. So when you travel next, look to the Directory of History of Medicine Collections, to help you find interesting and unique collections near your destination. And when you have questions on medical history topics let the Directory help you find the collections that have the answers.

The Directory is a valuable resource that can be used for diverse activities from historical research to lifelong learning.  I hope that you will take time to explore the Directory and discover history of medicine collections around the world.

Tune in tomorrow, Tuesday June 9th from noon to 1 PM EDT, when I’ll be giving a free webinar about the Directory.  The program is generously sponsored and hosted by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Middle Atlantic Region and will be publicly archived here.

We are constantly adding new collections and welcome suggestions and applications from organizations and institutions with collections in the history of medicine. It only takes a few minutes to create and upload an entry to the Directory database. As the editor of the database, I will be happy to assist prospective collections in any way possible to make the process go smoothly. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at crystals@mail.nih.gov with any questions you may have.

Portrait of Crystal Smith at her desk.Crystal Smith is Reference Librarian in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.



  1. Wow, this is amazing. I love medical history and you’ve opened up an entire new research tool. Thanks.

    1. Hi Adrienne,
      It’s feedback like yours that really makes sharing this research tool so very rewarding! I’m delighted to know that your love for medical history will be further enriched by your discovery of this amazing resource!

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