By Kenneth M. Koyle
Those who are familiar with the history of the National Library of Medicine know that the Library traces its roots to the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Library. In 2011, the celebration of NLM’s 175th anniversary reminded us that our institution began in 1836. On this, the 180th anniversary, we take a look at how our beloved Library got its start, and what happened in 1836 that fixed that date as the year of our institutional birth.
The roots of the Library actually reach back 18 years before 1836, to the establishment of the U.S. Army Medical Department and the appointment of the first Surgeon General of the Army, 30-year-old Joseph Lovell, in 1818. It was in the rented office of the young Surgeon General that the first few books—Lovell’s personal collection—took their place on a government shelf and became the seeds of what would eventually grow into the world’s largest biomedical library.
The Army Medical Department in 1818 was small, scattered, and insufficient for its mission. However, Lovell was determined to succeed, and he worked tirelessly to ensure that the Department’s surgeons and assistant surgeons were equipped to provide the best possible care to the widespread Army. The state of medical practice across the young nation was haphazard and disparate, ranging from highly-educated, scientifically-minded physicians who had studied at the best schools in Europe, to apprentice-trained doctors who had never set foot in a university classroom. Some physicians had practiced in large urban population centers, while others had only experience treating the small number of patients present in their small, frontier towns. In order to raise the standards of care and enable his officers to remain current on the latest advances in science and medicine, Lovell ensured that they had access to trustworthy, current medical information. He subscribed to medical journals for each surgeon and assistant surgeon, and in addition, the Surgeon General’s Office provided each post and regiment with a standard set of books on anatomy, surgery, and medical practice.
Prior to 1836, there was no specific budget allocation for medical publications. Instead, a few hundred dollars would be designated for operational necessities such as books, postage, and medical supplies. Lovell was meticulous and careful with his tiny budget, tracking every expenditure and taking pride in the occasions when he could demonstrate a reduction in the cost for medical support. However, throughout his tenure as Surgeon General, it appears that he neither requested nor received funding directly linked to procuring books for a medical library housed in the Office of the Surgeon General.
When Lovell died of pneumonia in October 1836, Assistant Surgeon Benjamin King, who was the senior medical officer serving in Washington at the time, assumed control of the office until President Andrew Jackson could appoint a new Surgeon General. During King’s short time as interim Surgeon General, the budget request for the coming year had to be submitted to the Secretary of War. King submitted the request on November 12, and for the first time included $150 for “medical books for office.” This was the first funding request specifically identifying books for the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General, and it is with this document that the U.S. National Library of Medicine marks the beginning of its history.
President Jackson selected Thomas Lawson to succeed Lovell as Surgeon General on November 30, 1836. Under Lawson’s leadership, the small collection of books blossomed into a legitimate library. Lawson continued to include funding for books in his annual budget requests, and, in 1840, an unknown staff member in the office compiled the first known catalog of books in the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General. The hand-written inventory listed 134 titles, including eight journals. Small though it was, the Library included the contemporary standards of medical and scientific literature, along with a few volumes of general scholarly interest.
Thomas Lawson served as the Surgeon General for 25 years, the longest tenure of anyone in that position. In that time he more than tripled the Library’s original humble collection. The Library of the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army was still small, but it was firmly established and growing. In later years Lawson’s successors built upon this foundation to create an institution worthy of its name. Now, 180 years after the first request for books, we proudly serve in the largest biomedical library in the world.