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.