By Anne Rothfeld
To celebrate American Archives Month Circulating Now is highlighting NLM’s archival collections with several posts this October.
From the very beginning of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847, its members felt that there was a need for a reliable medical directory of all the physicians in the United States. Although various attempts were made in the ensuing decades, it was not until the turn of the century that the AMA put this ambitious project into action. All physicians, AMA members or not, were to be included. Initially, the AMA began a biographical index of American physicians by consulting each state’s licensing body. Later, directories, lists of medical school graduates, and other sources were used to “back-fill” the records into the nineteenth-century. After 1901, medical schools and state licensing boards began to routinely file information about physicians with the AMA. In 1905 and 1906 as the physician files grew, letters requesting biographical information were sent to approximately 90,000 physicians. Similar biographical forms were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). To obtain additional information and to verify the data, 5,000 volunteer physicians around the country were recruited to review the biographical information.
After the publication of the 1906 directory, the AMA continued its effort to obtain more complete information about the graduates of all medical colleges and lists of licensed physicians prior to 1901. The information on each individual physician was put onto 4”x6” cards. By 1910, the biographical cards contained the full name, place and year of birth, premedical education, medical school and year of graduation, all licenses, internships, special training, and the physician’s place of practice. The cards are exhaustive for physicians who died between 1906 and 1969. Alumni record cards were prepared for those physicians who graduated from a medical school after 1865. There are also cards with death notices and biography going back to the nineteenth century, but these are incomplete.
The physician biographical cards were maintained until 1969 when the use of the cards was discontinued. At this point, the AMA began to store information in a computer database. Information on physicians living at this time was entered into the database. Today, AMA continues to collect, analyze and manage physician data as a primary resource for professional medical organizations, universities and medical schools, research institutions, governmental agencies, and other health-related groups.
The approximately 350,000 cards cards for physicians who died prior to 1970, were retained and placed in the AMA archives as the AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile. Realizing the historic value of this archival collection, in 1987, the AMA began to convert the cards to an electronic database with the intention of publishing. To simplify this process, the cards were divided into three sets: (1) Deceased physicians: 1804–1929; (2) Deceased physicians: 1930–1950; and (3) Deceased physicians: 1950–1969. The first set of cards was published in 1993 as the two volume Directory of Deceased American Physicians 1804–1929. It provides concise biographical sketches of over 149,000 deceased medical practitioners and has become a “classic” reference work used by the medical profession, historians, students, and genealogists. In 1994, the AMA sought a permanent home for the card file and contacted the National Genealogical Society (NGS) in Arlington, Virginia, which agreed to house the collection. The original cards arrived at the NGS in 1997. The NGS continued the practice of the AMA and used the cards to respond to requests concerning deceased physicians.
In November 2004, because the NGS was moving its headquarters to a different location, it decided to place the cards in a repository that would ensure their preservation and continued public access. The AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile cards were donated to the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.
The AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile 1906–1969 may be inspected in person by visiting the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.
Anne Rothfeld is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.
If one,let’s say I am looking for a a particularl Dr. that served in World War I How May I research the archives
Hi Maria, thanks for your interest in this collection. You may first take a look at the finding aid for this collection at http://oculus.nlm.nih.gov/ama556, which does include an alphabetical list of names. If you find something promising you can visit the Library in person and request access to the collection, which is onsite, and view it in the History of Medicine Reading Room. Or if you have questions you can contact NLM Customer Support to discuss access options with a reference librarian.
Please advise: I have located a particular AMA Deceased Physicians index card describing my grandmother’s second husband, who died in February 1959. The card has numbered entries, 1 – 6. It would help a great deal to understand what each of these represents. Some I can guess, but others seem to be coded in a way that I don’t recognize. For instance, entires 3a – 3e seem to refer to states and years (e.g., Mo. 10, 13-14). I guess this refers to a particular location in Missouri where my subject may have lived or studied in 1913-1914. Can you provide a key? Thanks for your attention and any help you can offer. John Ullman Granger, IN
Thanks for your question. AMA cards use the following categories:
 Practitioner’s name followed by date of death (M indicates male, F indicates female and maiden name will be in parentheses) (Mb or Fb indicates that the practitioner is an African-American male or female). In some cases, the cards do not contain complete information about the practitioner’s exact date of death. In these cases, we make some assumptions and have applied a statistical average to determine the practitioner’s date of death. This assumption is shown in the directory by listing the death date as 12/31/29a.
 place of demise;
 date of birth;
 place of birth;
 type of practice;
 practice specialties;
Our reference staff will send you additional information via email.
Good luck with your research!
Unfortunately, the numbered data fields described in “How to Read an Entry” don’t correspond to those on my relative’s card. I was able to figure out what most of the data means, but handwritten notes in several of the fields are unexplained. This publication reportedly contains several supplementary indices, but as far as I can tell, they aren’t available anywhere online. If you know where I can view “Index of Self-Designated Eclectic Practitioners,” I’d appreciate the information. Thanks for your help. John
Perhaps this publication would be helpful: Directory of deceased American physicians, 1804-1929 : a genealogical guide to over 149,000 medical practitioners providing brief biographical sketches drawn from the American Medical Association’s Deceased physician masterfile
The printed index isn’t scanned due to copyright. The collection’s finding aid is at https://oculus.nlm.nih.gov/ama556
The Card I found doesn’t seem to follow the same format. It has Letters and the numbers aren’t the same. For example, the place and date of birth are in (1) and (3) has different numbers such as 0.6, 35-36. The letter H looks like a list of his residences. Such as one is 9-41 A800 Vermillion, O. Is the date the first day he moved? The rest of the card I can figure out as it is straight-forward.
I figured out what entries such as “O.6, 35-36” mean. O is Ohio, and 6 is the code number used by the AMA to identify a medical school attended in that state, in the year 1935-1936. The numbers are listed in AMA publications I found online. Look for “American Medical Directory.” Vol. 1 was in 1906. The latest that I accessed was dated 1921, but I imagine there were later versions.
I am looking for info on my Great Grandfather John F. Harris 1846-1932 that died in Hunt County, Texas. Can I have a librarian locate this information for a fee?
Hi! Thanks for your inquiry. I’ve passed your request to our reference staff. Generally there is no fee. For more information you can go to our Customer Support Center.
Is there a database template that I may use? I am embarking in gathering the same or approximate data from my classmates of the medical Class of 1971 in the Central University of Venezuela. Many thanks, Aldo
Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, this collection has not been digitized. Note also that the file runs only from 1906 to 1969. If you have a detailed reference question regarding the collection please contact our reference staff via the NLM Support Center.