By Kenneth M. Koyle and Jeffrey S. Reznick
Over the summer, staff of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) took a little time out for a field trip to visit our institutional relative in Silver Spring, Maryland: the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) and our colleagues who work there.
The NMHM and the NLM share a common history (more about that in a moment). Today, both are U.S. federal institutions that share a common goal of collecting, preserving, and providing knowledge about the past, present, and future of biomedicine and health care. The diverse and different collections of these institutions complement each other in a myriad of ways that open fascinating windows onto American history, as well as the broader history of health and medicine.
Consider the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, which we had the privilege of seeing on display during our visit to the museum’s exhibition galleries. Published between 1870 and 1883, this multi-volume work documented a massive volume of data collected by Civil War surgeons at the direction of US Army Surgeon General William Hammond (1828–1900), including specimens of morbid anatomy, medical equipment, and pre- and post-operative photographs and medical illustrations of wounded soldiers. All of this material formed the basis of the collections of the Army Medical Museum, the predecessor institution of today’s NMHM.
While the Medical and Surgical History and related specimens and historical artifacts in the exhibitions were endlessly fascinating, the real excitement for the NLM staff came from the opportunity to go behind the scenes with the NMHM staff, to see how thoughtfully they preserve, care for, and make publicly accessible their unique and amazing collections. Having the privilege of learning directly from our colleagues about their work, we agreed that we approach our responsibilities of stewardship in strikingly similar ways, despite the different kinds in the collections we oversee.
One of the many specimens we saw behind the scenes at the NMHM related directly and uniquely to the assassination of our nation’s 20th president James A. Garfield, in 1881. The NNHM preserves not only the lumbar vertebrae of the President, taken by Army surgeons during his autopsy and preserved in the Army Medical Museum, but also the remains of Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, whom Army surgeons autopsied in an attempt to identify any evidence of insanity. While these specimens are preserved in the NMHM, the NLM holds a complementary collection of many of the original bulletins, in manuscript and printed form, which communicated the President’s lingering condition to the public during the summer of 1881.
So, both the NMHM and the NLM trace their origins to the nineteenth century, and both have a great deal to offer those who are interested in history generally and the history of medicine in particular. But more about their common history and how these two institutions became what they are today…
While the NMHM saw its beginnings as the Army Medical Museum during the Civil War, the NLM looks to the year 1836 and the commitment of the second US Army Surgeon General, Thomas Lawson (1789–1861), to purchase books and journals for active-duty medical officers. In the early 1920s, the library was renamed the Army Medical Library, and it was housed with the Army Medical Museum—in the famous “Old Red Brick” building on the National Mall—until the 1950s when the institutions were physically separated. Some readers may remember the distinctive red brick building on the National Mall where the Museum and the Library lived together for several years.
Eventually, the library was placed under the Public Health Service within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and it became the National Library of Medicine on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, where it resides today. Meanwhile, the museum remained under the army and evolved into the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
It was a real pleasure to meet and talk with our colleagues at the NMHM. They were generous with their time, thoughtful in their preparation for our visit, and patient in answering our many, many questions. We look forward to keeping in touch, welcoming them to the NLM, and exploring ways to work together in mutually-supportive ways to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of medicine for the present and the future.
Both the NLM and the NMHM are free and open to the public and offer a variety of programs, exhibitions, and online resources.
For more information or to arrange for a tour of the NMHM, please visit http://www.medicalmuseum.mil/index.cfm?p=visit.index.
For more information or to arrange for a tour of the NLM, please visit https://www.nlm.nih.gov/about/visitor.html.